Among the Fringe

I want to believe flashed across the screen of the darkened conference hall, the audience broke out in applause, and I realized I wasnt in Kansas anymore. Actually I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attending the F section of the 2006 Space Technology and Applications International Forum (STAIF). Tucked away in the basement of the hotels conference facilities, the F section is dedicated to frontier concepts, though the more cynically inclined might say fringe.UFO day 2.jpgThe leader of the group goes by the cyberspace nom de guerre UFOGuy11, and for the uninitiated in the world of fringe science he is, in fact, Paul Murad. No, Murad does not invent antigravity devices in his garage in Roswell, New Mexico, but rather, he works as a scientist for the Defense Intelligence Agency. In an interview with American Antigravity (Okay, need I even explain what this organization is?), he explained why he started the F section: to end discrimination against UFO believers."In the early nineties, I submitted papers on topics that focused around UFOs but I never mentioned the subject in the abstract," Murad said in the interview. "The reviewers accepted the papers on the basis of the abstracts."But eventually, conference organizers caught on to Murads little charade and his papers were scanned for hidden UFO references, and then summarily rejected. The F section of STAIF was thus designed to make the world safe for UFO believers, or at least to teach them how to write abstracts that wouldnt get them tagged as lunatics. On a more serious note, it appears that Murad tries to get scientists on the frontiers of science (or fringe, if you will) to behave in a scientific manner by presenting and defending their theories and experiments. And so in the F section, no idea is rejected outright as fringe, rather, it is examined and debated. Its a not bad idea, in theory.The F section, when I attended this February, was currently in its third year. I listened as UFOGuy11 ran through the agenda, featuring presentations like Eric Daviss Experimental Concepts for Generating Negative Energy in the Laboratory (those not familiar with Davis might check out his other work, on teleportation). There was also the usual assortment of papers involving gravity waves, antigravity, and of course zero-point energy (what fringe conference would be complete without zero point?).Now, before all the free energy enthusiasts, antigravity supporters, and UFO buffs attack me as yet another naysayer, let me say something: I really enjoy reading UFOGuy11s online dialogues with the likes of Jack Sarfatti, inventor of the God phone. I am intrigued by Sarfattis and Murads debates over wormholes and warp drive, although I occasionally find their e-mail conversations, interspersed by equations, a little tedious. I want to understand what drives these people and why they believe strange things. I truly believe the F section is a good thing, sort of.My problem with the F group, however, is the very problem pointed out by Murad himself. Some of the experiments supposedly supporting the outer reaches of science, like antigravity, have problems when other researchers try to replicate the results. Some of these experiments are so difficult, you cant replicate them, Murad said.Say what? Did he say you cant replicate them? Isnt that the gold standard of most science, just like they taught us in grade school? There were other problems; sometimes it was difficult to get the scientists on the frontiers to attend even friendly sessions like the F section. Some frontier scientists, it turns out, dont like having their papers critiqued. Wow, scientists not wanting to attend scientific conferences and having their ideas debated? That sounds problematic, too.These are similar to the problems that plagued the idea of the hafnium bomb, the notional weapon based on an experiment that violated the laws of physics. The experiment allegedly supporting the hafnium bomb had problems being replicated by independent researchers. And when a panel of experts, called the JASONS, tried to question the lead experimenter about his work, he was nowhere to be found. None of that prevented the Pentagon from funding the hafnium bomb, however.So, lets momentarily put aside the question of whether or not we want the Pentagon to fund frontier science (which I discussed yesterday). Lets ask a simpler question: Why do they believe? Thats another question I ask in my book released this week, ImaginaryWeapons: A Journey Through the Pentagons Scientific Underworld, which chronicles the life and near death of the hafnium bomb. I contend the very statement I want to believe is exactly where the problem lies. Most scientists dont believe or disbelievethey just look at the data, relying on the tried and true (albeit imperfect) criteria of reproducibility and peer review.Why does Murad believe? He says it himselflike Agent Mulder from the X-Files, he believes because he wants to believe. Antigravity, faster-than-light travel, and teleportation would all be great if they were real. Upstairs in the main section of the STAIF conference, scientists and engineers discussed such mundane things as, How the heck are we going to fulfill the inane drive to Mars with current technology? For many in the F section, thats just way too down-to-earth.Theres no evidence that Murad, despite his Pentagon position, has funded any of these wild ideas, so I find the F group an interesting challenge to mainstream science, and not a threat to national security, like the hafnium bomb. Maybe some day, the scientists of the F section will even replicate a few experiments, come out of the basement, and join the rest of the conference. I wish them luck.-- Sharon Weinberger

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