BREAKING THE LAW OF GRAVITY:
Skeptics had a field day when a scientist claimed in 1996 that gravity could be negated. Now his findings are being investigated in laboratories worldwide.
In 1996, Russian émigré scientist Eugene Podkletnov was about to publish a peer-reviewed article in the respected British Journal of Physics proving, he claimed, that gravity could be negated.
Then a London newspaper publicized his conclusions, and the skeptics had a field day. Everyone knew you couldn't mess with the law of gravity - Einstein himself had said so.
Podkletnov withdrew the article.
But the controversy hasn't gone away, as his findings began to be investigated in laboratories around the world. Including one owned by NASA.
Now, as Charles Platt discovers, Eugene Podkletnov is back and unrepentant.
Shortly before dawn on a dismal, rain-drenched winter morning I'm heading out of Helsinki along Highway 3, into the heart of Finland. This obscure nation is an underpopulated wilderness sandwiched like a DMZ between Russia and Sweden, extending all the way up into the Arctic Circle. The sun barely sets here in the summer, while in the winter, it barely rises. I can't imagine why anyone would visit Finland in the dark months, unless motivated by some strange need to go skiing in perpetual twilight ... but my grueling pilgrimage has nothing to do with snow. I've come in search of a singular individual, a reclusive, elusive Russian émigré scientist named Eugene Podkletnov, who claims that he can defy the force of gravity.
Five years ago, while testing a superconducting ceramic disc by rotating it above powerful electromagnets, Podkletnov noticed something extremely strange. Small objects above the disc seemed to lose weight, as if they were being shielded from the pull of Planet Earth. The weight reduction was small - around 2 percent - but nothing like this had ever been observed before. If the shielding effect could be refined and intensified, the implications would be immense. In fact, practical, affordable gravity nullification could change our lives more radically than the invention of the internal combustion engine.
Imagine a future in which vehicles can levitate freely.
Highways and railroads become obsolete, airplanes no longer need wings, and oceangoing ships can be broken up for scrap. Industries in which large masses have to be transported or supported - from mining to construction - are revolutionized. Citizens gain unprecedented mobility, transcending all geographical and national barriers.
Meanwhile, space travel is now safe, cheap, and fast. Resources can be mined in the asteroid belt and shipped to factories relocated in orbit around Earth, freeing our planet from pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Ultimately the old dream of colonizing other worlds may be realized, not just for a handful of highly trained astronauts but for millions of everyday people.
Far-fetched? Indeed. Most physicists laughed at Podkletnov's report. Riley Newman, a professor of physics at UC Irvine who has been involved in gravity research for 20 years, typified the reaction when he commented, "I think it's safe to say gravity shielding is not conceivable." Like many scientists, he felt that Podkletnov must have made a mistake, measuring magnetic fields or air currents instead of genuine weight reduction.
And yet, few of Podkletnov's critics actually bothered to read his description of his work. Their reaction was so dismissive, it almost sounded like prejudice. From their perspective he was an outsider, a nonmember of the "gravity establishment." They couldn't believe that a major discovery in physics had been made by such a no-status dilettante fooling around at some obscure lab in Finland.
True, Podkletnov wasn't a physicist - but he did have a doctorate (in materials science) and he knew how to do careful lab work. When he wrote up his results, his papers were accepted for publication in some sober physics journals, and at least one theoretical physicist - an Italian named Giovanni Modanese - became intrigued. Modanese didn't dismiss the whole idea of gravity shielding, because on the subatomic level, we simply don't know how gravity functions. "What we are lacking today," according to Modanese, "is a knowledge of the microscopic or 'quantum' aspects of gravity, comparable to the good microscopic knowledge we have of electromagnetic or nuclear forces. In this sense, the microscopic origin of the gravitational force is still unknown." At the Max Planck Institute in Munich, he developed a theory to explain the shielding phenomenon.
Charles Platt (firstname.lastname@example.org), a frequent contributor to Wired, wrote "Plotting Away in Margaritaville" in Wired 5.07.