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By Robert Matthews in New Scientist, September 21, 1996.

Mystery surrounds a Russian scientist's astonishing claim to have built an antigravity machine, following his decision to withdraw a paper describing the device from a leading physics joumal.

According to the paper, the cylindrical device measures 275 millimeters across and contains a magnetically suspended and rotating ring of superconducting ceramic. It is said to reduce the weight of any object placed over it by up to 2 per cent. The authors claim to have observed the antigravity effect with a wide variety of materials suspended over the device, ranging from ceramics to wood.

Tests are also said to have ruled out the possibility that the weight loss was the result of magnetic fields or air flow. However, the paper gives no real clues to how the effect might be generated.

Even so, the paper, which carries the names of Eugene Podklernov and Petri Vuorinen of Tampere University in Finland was accepted for publication by the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, which took advice from three independent referees before deciding to proceed.

But Podkletnov has now withdrawn the paper, just weeks before it was due to appear. His decision follows a bizarre series of developments triggered by media interest in the device. Earlier this month Tampere University issued a carefully worded statement denying all knowledge of the antigravity research. While admitting that it had been involved in some preliminary experiments done by Podkletnov in the early 1990s, the university said he was no longer on the staff.

Suspicions deepened when Vuorinen, the supposed co-author of the paper, issued a statement denying that he had ever worked on antigravity with Podkletnov.

The furore appears to have surprised Podkletnov, who insists that the claims made in the paper are genuine. But he says the university is correct in denying the existence of any recent research, as the paper centers on experiments carried out in 1992.

On the key issue of Vuorinen's denial of involvement in the work, Podkletnov says that there must have been some confusion over names, and that another Petri Vuorinen was the true coauthor. Podkletnov does have an unpaid affiliation with Tampere's Institute of Material Science. However, inquiries have failed to uncover anyone with a similar name at the university who admits to working on the antigravity research.

The controversy also appears to have shocked the Institute of Physics, which publishes the Journal of Physics D. Three referees failed to find any major flaw in the paper's claims, which if confirmed would rate as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history.

Gravity is the most ubiquitous force in the Universe, and no one has ever found any way of shielding matter from its effects. The discovery of a shielding effect would have huge theoretical and commercial implications.

Faced with Tampere University's statement, and Vuorinen's denial tbat he was involved, Richard Palmer, managing editor of the journal, decided to put the paper on hold pending further inquiries. Three days later, on 9 September Podklernov solved the institute's dilemma by withdrawing his paper. He gave no reason. But he stands by his claims: "This is an important discovery and I don't want it to disappear," he told New Scientist.

The paper may now never appear in any physics journal: Podklernov is said to have been put under pressure from unknown "funding agencies" not to reveal any more, pending patent applications.

Even so, the mystery of the antigravity machine lingers. What is known is that the paper had passed scrutiny by independent experts in superconductivity, and had been accepted by a reputable journal. Tampere University itself concedes that Podkletnov has a good reputation for research, and refuses to pass judgment on whether the antigravity machine actually works.

Some theorists claim to have an inkling of an explanation for the phenomenon. At the University of Alabama, Huntsville, Ning Li has been investigating the possibility that superconductors may generate bizarre gravitational effects predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity, but so far never observed.

According to the general theory of relativity, rotating matter can generate a new force of nature, known as the gravitomagnetic interaction, whose intensity is proportional to the rate of spin. Attempts to measure the incredibly feeble gravitomagnetic field of the Earth are currently being planned ("Music of the spheres", New Scientist, August 31, p.28).

However, research published by Li and Douglas Torr of the Optical Aeronomy Laboratory at the University of Alabama suggests that rapidly spinning ions within superconductors may magnify the force to a level that might have detectable effects in the laboratory. Whether it can explain Podkletnov's results remains unclear, and with his paper now withdrawn, many scientists will conclude there is nothing to explain in any case.

"I don't know of any way in which these effects can be made very large and so l'd have to be sceptical," says Bernard Schutz, a gravity theorist at the University of Wales, Cardiff. "It's implausible, but not impossible".

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Cette page a été mise à jour le 20 mai 2001.