Woodward Effect

Charles Platt at BoingBoing has a nice article about Dr. James Woodward’s investigation into exploiting Mach’s Principle for propellantless propulsion.

Unlike all the “free energy” scams that you see online, Woodward’s device does not violate basic physical laws (it does not produce more energy than it consumes, and does not violate Newton’s third law). Nor is Woodward withholding any information about his methods. He has written a book, published by Springer, that explains in relentless detail exactly how his equipment works–assuming that it does, indeed, work. He published his theory in Foundations of Physics Letters, vol. 3, no. 5, 1990, and he even managed to get a US patent — number 5,280,864, issued January 25, 1994.

I first heard about him in 1997, when I interviewed him for Wired magazine. His results were tentative, then, and he was cautious about making claims. “I have biweekly paranoia attacks,” he told me, “and then I try something else to see if I can make this effect go away.”

Almost twenty years later, the situation has changed. Dr. Heidi Fearn, a theoretical physicist who specializes in quantum optics at Fullerton, has done the math that she believes can justify Woodward’s experimental evidence. Wikipedia now has a substantial entry about the Woodward Effect. The Space Studies Institute is championing the cause, inviting tax-deductible donations.

I have followed Dr. Woodward’s work for well over 15 years, and I have actually played a small part in facilitating some of his experiments, by doing a bit of hunting around for a supplier of a particular dielectric material he was looking for.

While there have been several claims of propellantless drives over the years, most of them smell of snake oil. Dr. Woodward’s does not — he is an excruciatingly careful and honest experimentalist, and it took a lot of persuasion to get him to allow the current modest funding initiative, as he is reluctant to ask for money unless he can convincingly demonstrate the effects he is working with, which, ironically, will require some updated equipment that is beyond his private means.

Genetically Engineering Physical Features

We are starting to learn how DNA controls the development of physical structures. Researchers have been able to modify the shapes of various features of developing mice by changing their “non-coding” DNA.

It turns out that so-called “junk DNA”, or “non-coding DNA” is actually the program that controls the use of the coding DNA, and it’s startlingly like a programming language, with switches to turn on and off the use of other parts of the genome depending on context, control flow expressions, and many more.

Consciousness and Free Will

There has been a lot of literature recently, both scholarly and popular, about the fact that humans’ decision-making processes are not actually carried out in a conscious fashion. That is, experiments have shown that decisions are made in the brain some time — up to several seconds — before we are aware of making them. Google “consciousness free will” for many, many links.

This biological fact leads a lot of people to declare that we don’t have free will and are therefore “actually” mindless automatons, whatever that is supposed to mean. I’m a little bemused by this — I don’t think the fact has any bearing whatsoever on the question of “free will”, whatever that is (I have no idea).

The brain obviously makes a decision somehow, and the fact that we only percieve our brain’s having made the decision after the fact has little bearing on how exactly the brain makes it. Someone will have to define “free will” for me before I can opine on whether or not the brain has it. As to whether or not it’s “me” making the decision, why should I think of the parts of myself whose functioning I am not aware of as not being a part of me? I’m quite comfortable with the idea that my conscious experience of myself is really a summary, a newsreel, of the vaster collection of structures and activities that are me.

I think the real reason people have sensationalized this result is that the sophomore bullshitter in many of us would like to be able to say “since I actually have no free will at all, it doesn’t matter what I do” to get a reaction out of other people.

Software Releases

In the past couple of months I have released new versions of NeuroLab and IronMeta.

NeuroLab version 1.2.3 is a maintenance release containing numerous fixes:

  • Fixed grid generation after resize.
  • Fixed grid viewer not always reflecting latest grid status.
  • Fixed grid saving and loading losing grid network.
  • Fixed activation gradient rendering for links of length greater than 1.
  • Fixed inhibition for links of length greater than 1.
  • Source code fixes and refactoring.

IronMeta version 2.3 contains the following:

  • Made generated code more general so it is now possible to combine parsers by inheritance or encapsulation.
  • Added the ability to use anonymous object literals in rules. They match by comparing their public properties with the input object’s properties.
  • Fixed a bug where string and char literals were not correctly handled in parsers whose input was not of type char.
  • Fixed an off-by-one error in input enumerables.
  • Generated code now compiles with Mono.