Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yippee ki-yay

A roundup from the fringes of physics ...

Do magnetic monopoles exist? (Think of a magnetic monopole as a tiny north pole without a matching south pole, or vice versa -- even though bisecting a bar magnet always produces two smaller bar magnets, each with a north and a south pole.) No magnetic monopole has ever been detected, but some post-Standard Model (hence, speculative) theories of particle physics allow for magnetic monopoles. Here's one more notion about how -- if magnetic monopoles are real -- we might detect them: "Can corkscrewing lasers solve an enduring particle physics mystery?"

Part of ITER, under construction
Will we ever have fusion reactors? It seems like controlled fusion technology has been twenty years into our future for at least fifty years. The latest forecast for international science's premier fusion project (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, aka ITER) is again forecasting success in about twenty years (2035, to be precise). See "ITER Council endorses updated project schedule."

With the recent publication of a single peer-reviewed paper on the topic of the supposedly reactionless EM (electromagnetic) drive, a slew of pop-sci papers on the topic have also appeared. It's always possible -- and exciting! -- to discover that something we thought we understood isn't quite so. (As in, for example, Einstein's centuries-after extensions to, and recasting of, Newton's theory of gravity.) It's also wise to take surprising claims with a grain of salt. (Remember the brouhaha a few years back about FTL neutrinos? That assertion, ultimately was debunked on account of a loose cable in an experimental setup.) See "How Physics Falls Apart If The EM drive Works." A key quote:

The problem isn't that these laws [e.g., Newton's three laws of motion] couldn't be overturned by experiment; of course they could. The problem is that physicists have performed so many experiments in so many different ways, so carefully and with such precision verifying them. These conservation laws have been confirmed for every gravitational, mechanical, electromagnetic and quantum interaction ever observed. And now, it's claimed that an engine, one that relies on nothing more than a simple electromagnetic power source, overthrows all of physics. And the NASA Eagleworks test confirms, in a peer-reviewed paper, that thrust is produced with no discernible reaction for the action observed.

From Wikipedia
IMO, nothing in physics is weirder than quantum mechanics, and among the weird (but confirmed -- see, for example, the Casimir effect) predictions of QM is that empty space isn't, well, truly empty. QM permits spontaneous energy fluctuations in the nothingness, as long as they are sufficiently brief (this is an alternate form of the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle). And, it seems, those weird fluctuations result in -- surprise -- weird effects. As in:
Is that enough weird for one day?

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