The Difference Between Trees and Rocks

This post is in response to a Flat Earther youtube video entitled “There are no forests on Flat Earth Wake Up.” I won’t link directly to this video because I refuse to help provide it with traffic.

I first happened across a description of this video in an article from The Atlantic. At the time, I sort of sat there and fulminated as I read it. That article in and of itself was not enough to stimulate a response from me because there’s really not much to say. Flat Earth believers are a train wreck of misconception and arrogance. They do not deserve acknowledgement for their ideas except to say that they are not merely wrong, but willfully contrarian to reality.

There is no arguing with a Flat Earther.

Fact is that such a person is so invested in a bad idea that they cannot be dissuaded from it. There are so many things that happen or are happening around you all the time that provide evidence against the flat earth that you need only open your eyes to see them. It takes a willful investment in the avoidance of reality to believe in a flat earth. You can look back at my response to a set of flat earth claims to know my general thoughts.

The video I mentioned above goes a step beyond the usual flat earth nonsense and makes the rather extravagant claim that there used to be forests on earth where the trees are miles tall and that land features like mesas or volcanic plugs like Devil’s Tower are stumps left from these huge trees. And, further, at some point those trees were all toppled and that the ‘man’ has a conspiracy going to cover up that they ever existed. Scientists are apparently actively complicit in hiding ‘the truth’ by distorting findings about fossils.


Devil’s Tower is a striking piece of landscape. I’ve seen it for myself and it is visceral and impressive. The structure is sort of biological after a fashion, I will admit. It does look like a tree stump. However, making the claim that an object has a biological form is not the same as claiming the object is biological. Nature has an incredible repertoire of mechanisms for producing complicated patterns that are absolutely not biological.

How was the following pattern constructed?


Tell me what you think this is! I know what it is, but I’m not going to identify it right away. Is it biological? Is this in an art museum? What do you think? More than that, how would you go about figuring out what this is? Think about it while you read.

The video I mentioned above goes on and on about things looking like other things actually being the other thing. That video is an hour and a half of blanket assertion. I admittedly could only stomach about 20 minutes of the video before it became completely clear that I wasn’t about to encounter anything resembling reality at any point along the way. Watching it all the way through is a waste of time… it should chill one to the bone that the number of ‘likes’ on this video is in the hundreds of thousands. Do that many people really get stuck on this topic?

The first thing you’ll note about that video is that the narrator very frequently says “This is bullshit” or “That’s bullshit!” Does an assertion of falsehood uproot a truth? He characterizes claims made by scientists using the words “Contrary to all laws of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.” What are those laws? What does science actually say? How do you know when a scientist is contradicting the ‘laws of science?’ You have to know what the science is, right? He goes on at length showing goofy pictures of apparently inept scientists while attacking the notion of fossilization, that a biological relic can be subsumed into a route of decomposition where the carbon structure is replaced by a long-term silicon structure.

Of course, in order to justify his mile-tall trees, he needs to completely throw out the window basically everything known about geology. His mile-tall trees weren’t actually carbon, but silicon (never mind that his entire treatise started out on the assertion that everything that’s left of these trees is carbon trapped in ice: carbon, silicon, carbon, iron, apparently self-consistency isn’t required in the rarefied atmosphere he inhabits)… and that relics of these huge trees are stumps formed by mesa-like mountains or that fossil trees from petrified forests are actually branches from some huge silicon tree. Early on, he makes the claim that trees produce a constant current of electricity (which is false) and that there was a silicon era (never mind that there is no such thing as silicon based life… that we know of on Earth. And, no, diatoms are not silicon based).

Coming back to Devil’s tower, he spends a huge amount of time claiming that there’s no way the structure of the tower could be naturally occurring without the patterning provided by life because it’s far too regular. If you look closely at the tower, it has this fascinating hexagonal columnar structure that almost looks built rather than deposited.


As he was marveling at Devil’s Tower and how the structure is inexplicable, I turned him off…

Let’s consider this one particular claim and distinguish how an actual scientist thinks in contrast to the nonsense put forth by this crank. The claim is that there’s no way a non-biological process can produce regular hexagonal column structures of the size seen at Devil’s tower. Claims by geologists that these structures are rock formed from lava are therefore ‘bullshit.’ I do hear scientists use the word ‘bullshit’ once in a while, but here’s the difference. The crank says ‘the structures are too big and too regular, therefore they had to have been made from a tree.’ On the other hand, a scientist would say this: ‘These structures are very big and very regular, I do not accept that they were made without the patterning provided by life, but I would change my mind about this if I could find an example of this kind of structure where I know the patterning is by a non-living process.’

Jumping to the money shot, one obvious candidate is crystallization. This process is well known to make geometrical inorganic shapes and it is understood that it happens spontaneously. Crystallization has a hefty contact to physics, chemistry and biology and there is huge literature of it outside of scientific fields. This is, of course, where gemstones come from. The objects in Devil’s Tower look very much like crystals. Can crystals become that large? Can they bend like the fluting of a tree trunk?

With Devil’s Tower in mind, I went to Google and performed an image search looking for ‘large industrially produced crystals.’ How big can crystals be made? This turned up a company by the name of Cleveland Crystals which produces large crystals:


So, first off, crystals can be made that are ‘big.’ How big is big enough? Can it be scaled up without limit? There’s no reason to think not. The website for the company says pretty clearly that there is a correlation between the size of the crystal and the time it took to form.

Now, second, if crystals are ‘made’ by a company, does that mean that nature can’t also make crystals? Certainly a valid question since humans almost certainly caused the structures in the picture above to exist. Maybe nature can’t make them that big.

I therefore did an image search for ‘large natural crystals.’ Which produced this:


This is found in a mine in Mexico.

Do I believe that crystals can be big? Clearly they can be. But, are those things in Devil’s Tower crystals?

I then started to search for natural crystals that are hexagonal in cross section that look like rocks:


This is a mineral called aquamarine. One rapidly descends into mineralogy at some point, necessitating at least some cursory respect for geology.

Now, I have big hexagonal crystals. But do they bend like the gentle curvature seen in Devil’s Tower? I mean, crystals are renown for their geometric straightness, so maybe the failure would be if crystals don’t bend.

A quick search gave me this example in Quartz:


As it turns out, crystal lattices do have the ability to deform their dimensions over long distances.

What I have now is this. There’s a process called ‘crystallization’ which is totally non-living that produces big, patterned objects that can have hexagonal, geometric cross sections that can be slightly bent all while still looking like rock. Crystallization is well known to be spontaneous and to not depend on the presence of life, even if it can occur in a factory. ‘Crystallization’ is a bit of a leap because I was simply fishing for non-living processes that can produce large, geometrically patterned objects. A bundle of crystals could conceivably be piled together into a formation like a tree stump.

So then, is Devil’s Tower a crystal formation? If it’s from a living thing, you should be able to walk over to it and break off a piece to look for biological cells… in reality, if you look at a piece of Devil’s Tower under the microscope, you would find no cells and if you put it into a mass spectrometer, you would find minerals, maybe like the ones above. There is even a testable model for how a structure like Devil’s Tower might form… it would be like a much longer term version of the conditions that happen in the factory at Cleveland Crystals, but just sitting out in the world. You could melt rock of similar chemical composition to Devil’s Tower in a crucible shaped like a tree stump and then set the crucible in conditions that support crystallization. Would it then spontaneously crystallize so that the crystals filled a volume shaped like a stump?

Notice, there are details that can be chased as long as you keep asking logical questions. A scientist will say, “I know this and this and this, but I’m not quite sure about that.”

Here’s the big difference between the scientist and the crank. The crank decided ahead of time that the formation was too *whatever* to have occurred by any means other than his preferred crankery. The scientist may start with a similar idea to the crank, but he’s got to include ‘falsification’ in his process (either directly by his own hand, or by peer review). Falsification is a loop hole that you must always add which gives you some way of being able to change your mind if better evidence or explanations come along. What evidence would I have to find in order to prove this theory wrong? A big part of the scientific method is deliberately trying to knock a theory down, to falsify it. In the case of Devil’s Tower, a crystal forming process might well have created the observed pattern, so the Tower isn’t necessarily a biological product. Since other processes exist which can produce the same outcome, the “huge tree” hypothesis is in immediate jeopardy as one among competing theories –Occam’s razor would give an adequate coup de gras to finish the argument right here since the “huge tree” theory can’t support all the evidence that the full field of geology can throw at it. But, if you’re stubborn and absolutely certain that the Tower is biological in origin, you would have to look and see if it has a biological fabric… if it has no fundamental biological structure, like evidence of cells, then it can’t be a living product and the hypothesis that it’s the stump of some huge tree must be discarded. Eventually, the combined weights of Biology and Geology would crush this fanciful little pet theory.

This may confuse some people. I’m saying that a necessary core of the scientific method is that you must go out and look for evidence that disproves your thesis. With a lot of science, it doesn’t look like this is happening anymore, which is why certain science is called ‘settled.’ The creationist will say “I’m trying to attack a hypothesis: I’m offering evidence that shows that Evolution is wrong.” The Flat Earther who made the video will say “Everything in geology is bullshit: don’t you see all the explanations I’m offering?” Even an antivaxxer will say “If you’re so confident in vaccines, why aren’t you still testing to see if they cause autism?” To many cranks, science looks like this united party who thoughtlessly discards every challenge to the hallowed orthodoxy. If science is based on tearing down accepted theories, why won’t they test my version?

In some ways, certain parts of science take on the aura of a hallowed ground. This is the result of the last generation of active theories weathering all the assaults waged against them… scientists have tried for decades to knock old theories down and offered modifications to strengthen those theories wherever an attack succeeded. As a result, the old theories became the modern theories and their weaknesses vanished. The fights occurring between scientists to falsify modern theories happen at a level above where most of the public and laymen are competent to contribute. You have to pick your fights, and if you’re smart, you understand not to pick a losing fight! In most cases, cranks are not seeing that the relevant fights have already been long since fought. The young earth creationist is typically attacking science where the fight was settled about a hundred years ago: any scientifically justifiable modification to the modern theories that would work better than Darwin’s evolution inevitably still looks too much like evolution to do anything but offend creationist sensibilities, making it a losing fight. The Flat Earther in the video needs literally to throw out the entire geology textbook and the last five hundred years of human history to get to where he has a competent fight, which means he may as well be headbutting a 10 ton granite rock. Antivaxxers are fighting a science that is more recently settled, ten years or twenty years, but settled –at some point, you can’t keep testing a discarded hypothesis. The climatology that global warming deniers question is very fresh and still contains questions, but certain parts are as settled as heliocentricism.

To contribute to science, you must be at the level of the science! Crankery often hinges on not merely willful ignorance, but on someone not understanding the limits of what they understand.

What did you think that pattern was in the mystery picture I posted above? The material depicted is also a kind of crystal, but its a type of cholesteric liquid crystal, meaning that the pattern formed spontaneously and is not biological in nature. Did you guess what it was? How easy is it to look at a pattern and be wrong about what you’re seeing? Human perception is fragile and easily fooled.

Edit 12-7-17:

I went back through the article of “The Atlantic” today which describes the Flat Earth Forests video addressed in this post and I had a couple additional thoughts.

The author of this article speaks about the geological features like Devil’s Tower having an “organic” shape. What constitutes an “organic” shape?

The word “organic” has a fairly complicated meaning, it turns out. It seems to mean “relating to or derived from living matter.” That a shape can be described as “organic” would seem to imply that it has a “biologically derived” shape.

As I stopped and thought about it, this word usage came to trouble me. It is not a lie to claim that Devil’s Tower looks like a tree stump and that this would mean that stone can have a biological shape. But, what about the shape of a stump is particular to life? Wouldn’t it be as accurate to say that a tree stump has the shape of a volcanic plug and that tree stumps are therefore igneous?

You could fix on the notion of rounded curves as being particular to “organic” shapes. But, wheels have rounded curves and basically no living thing has wheels, so wouldn’t that make an organic curve “wheel-like” and similar to an unnatural wheel?

People seem to sometimes mean “organic” as in “occurring like nature intended.” But, again, I have no idea what that means since nature produces all kinds of bizarre shapes, from the exceedingly regular to the exceedingly irregular.

It seems to me that the word “organic” in the common vernacular has come to mean basically nothing in particular except “harkening to life” whenever someone wants a cool word that means “like life” even though what they’re about to describe has just a much in common with non-living or otherwise unnatural things.

By the definitions of a chemist, an asphalt road is organic.


(Edit 3-19-18:)

Oh boy, crank comment! Rather than leaving it in the comments, I’m going to quote it here and respond as far as I care to. Anybody want to see what a Gish Gallop looks like? Read on:

I fully agree to that the flat earth guy, or russian guy is a egomanic or have a giant ego, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong about the devils tower. his iq is far above most people so thats where his ego comes from. how i know. well im in the same category when it comes to iq.

Never argue from a perspective of “IQ.” IQ does not equal “correct.”

the author of this site have only used a single example to couterweight the tree argument and it does not add up since i have looked at hundreds of examples and seen plenty of indications of structures that looks like giant trees. i know what you the author of this page feel, as its your world view that is about to crumble if these tree’s were real.

You don’t understand what the above post was about. I used an example of scientific thought to follow logic and falsify a hypothesis. All I needed to do was to produce a simpler example to explain the same thing and then rely on Occam’s Razor. My world view really doesn’t matter; the author of the original flat earth screed used nothing resembling science.

i know why you don’t want to look at the whole video, and its because your mind decided it was crackpottery the moment you saw the title.

When the original author can’t even decide whether his trees are silicon or carbon, I don’t see why I should waste the time. The internet is five times as deep as it is wide and most of what’s written there is useless.

it have never in history been as small tree’s on earth as its now.

Broad statement dude. Too bad you fail to back that up. The fossil record for trees is pretty well understood.

the biggest tree’s on earth is the tallest biggest and the oldest that we currently know of.
the probability that tree’s have evovled upward anytime recently by getting bigger is small.
even the dinosaurs was bigger than what currenly lives now.

“was” versus “were”… your superior intelligence related to your superior word use?

there is no indication based on what we know about that have existed from before and uptil now that have evolved upward into bigger beings.
its rather the opposite that we have seen that beings have become smaller.

Mammals are known to have been shrew-sized at the time of the dinosaurs and gotten bigger. Whales have a common ancestor with dogs and have gotten bigger.

what we currently know is rock is not as dense as people think since sinkholes are able to form even trough solid rock.

Sinkholes are a special case where the water table has washed away underlying rock and the surface can implode. Geologists know all about how they form. Please, at least bother to know what you’re talking about before opening your mouth. The density of particular types of mineral is extremely well understood: it hasn’t changed.

that means that much of what is known to be rock is actually different densities of sand or dirt.
water have been detected deep underground the crust all over the world, so there is no reason to think that a giant tree the size of devils tower could not get acess to water beneath the crust.

Devil’s tower is not made of biological material, you’re jumping the gun.

much of what we think of the earths solidity appear not so solid after all.
there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of what looks like giant tree’s just like devils tower and if you saw the whole video, you would know that.

Again, why waste time on a piece of crap? I have better things to do.

i don’t believe the earth is flat, how ever as round it is much larger than what people generally think.

The size of the earth is extremely precisely understood based upon GPS measurements. If you’re going to claim the Earth should be bigger than it is, you’d better have very compelling evidence.

we live on a very big planet and its more than enough room on this earth to support tree’s the size of devils tower or bigger.
for me its likely that if devils tower was a tree that it was organic.
its not true for us, animals and tree’s and plants that we are not silicon based.
actually we humans have silicon in our cells, blood and bone.

Having silicon in our bodies is not the same as “Silicon based.” Further, Devil’s Tower is known to be non-organic… it’s rock and it contains no biological structure relics. I invite you to go look for these huge trees; pretty much every corner of our planet is accessible with a plane ticket or a satellite photo.

everything on this planet evolved on the dependency of what the earth provides that is mostly abundant in form of silicon.
if we think we evovled from dinosaurs, is it not rational to think that dinosaurs evovled from somthing bigger than dinosaurs and would not the same go for tree’s?

Organisms evolve to fit whatever niche is available to them; they get bigger and smaller depending on whatever pressures they survive, as long as those pressures occur slowly enough for genetic drift to shape their bodies and behaviors. There is a lot of evidence of both occurring… even modern humans have evolved from the smaller homo habilis, who was no more than 4 ft tall.

the reason for claiming that giant tree’s the size of devils tower could not eixst, are not good enough, since there is plenty of water and minerals in the crust for these tree’s to get their nutrition from and as far as the sun is concerned, tree’s does not need oxygen to live or survive since they actually breath carbondioxide.
if you feed tree’s with higher consentrations of carbondioxide, they actually grow faster and better as long as there is plenty of water available.

False, oxidative metabolism relies on oxygen and trees do use it. They just produce more oxygen by photosynthesis than they consume by the rest of their metabolism.

anything disturbing is only so because its alien and because your not used to or familiar with it.

So far, you’re not impressing me. You don’t even know enough about the biochemistry to understand how trees live and grow.

if you want to debunk somthing, you have to come up with somthing better that seaching google for fast evidence to prove your side of the story since there is no way to know what is natural, like real crystal if the only thing you see is a piece of a hexagonal fossil and there no way to tell, this was not part of a tree either since tree brances sometimes turns into crystal over time and is indistinguisable from naturally grown crystals in that sense.

Since you don’t understand the concept of falsification, let me give you a quick lesson. If I can easily produce a different explanation that also fits the facts but doesn’t require an hour and a half of over-warmed video, the initial hypothesis isn’t the only possible explanation of the observations. My aim was not more than to place a possibility on the table which would break better in the face of Occam’s Razor, which I did. It actually wasn’t hard since the “Russian guy” doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about to begin with. If you want to prove me wrong, go to Devil’s Tower, drill out a core sample, throw it under the microscope and show me that it contains an intact continuum of cells, even fossilized. If it’s a tree stump, it had better look like a tree stump under the microscope. It doesn’t, it contains mineral structures and is better explained by geology than biology.

i think your evidence on favior of science is rather poor as your evidence to the contrary of giant tree is more sloppy that the russian guy.

Given that you can’t even spell “favior” or capitalize “I,” I’m not impressed with your claim that I should think anything about what you say. You’re confusing being able to open your mouth with being able to articulate a cogent opinion.

it seems like you tried to find a quickfix get away from giant tree’s in the first place.
even if crystal could grow the size of devils tower, would you not have problems to accept that as well?

Something to do with the fact that the “Russian guy” can’t even figure out whether his trees are made of carbon or silicon and has a problem with basic consistency. Do you know what a Gish Gallop is? You’re doing a remarkable job of exemplifying one.

the fact that this material is not transparent or quarts crystal in the first place just indicate that the material is unlikely to form from crystalisation since the strenght of crystals is so strong of these types that they simply would never erode like this.

How do you know how strong a crystal is? Most hydrated protein crystals can be crushed with your fingers. An iron crystal will resist crushing with a hammer.

crystals are alive in the sennce they absorb minerals and grows but have a geometry to their growt and does not break easly.

Diamond is a carbon crystal with no minerals in it, it absorbs no minerals to grow. Protein crystals and ice crystals are frequently so fragile you can break them with your fingers. Nematic liquid crystals would flow straight through a sieve. Do you have any knowledge at all of crystallization? Given that you don’t even know something as basic as this, how in the world do you believe you have enough knowledge of any of this subject to make a clear, capable judgement about the reality of it? You can’t! This is why laymen don’t determine how professional fields operate.

organic material on the other hand, when fossilized, break easly and can turn into structures like these.

Diamond is organic, bud. Strike four, but keep swinging.

when mud sand and organics turns into fossils and erode, they can break of into many pieces and fall down.

real science is not where you ego takes you but rather where the evidence leads, and if its in favior of giant trees then we need to accept that or we begin practice somthing called a dogma.

I think I’m unimpressed with what you believe science to be. It’s really a good thing you’re in no position to dictate to scientific authorities what they ought to be studying because you don’t know and are completely ill equipped to judge the reality of pretty much everything. Time to take stock of your own ego since you’ve placed such a gish gallop on such a insignificant blog.

dogmatic thinking have never resulted in advancement of knowlege and kept people in limbo for ages.

Are you familiar with the Galileo Gambit? This is the crank’s mantra that eventually history will exonerate you. Sorry, but you’re just wrong and, no, history will not record otherwise. Moreover, your comment is engraved forever in my blog for the world to see and laugh.

Anyway, I’m basically tired. I have better things to do. Anyone who wants to read the rest of this rather epic whine, be my guest. Judge for yourself:

the greeks had many dogmatic ideas that was leading nowhere but was of such a caracter as it would not differ much from established framework of science.

even if you discover many things scientifically that goes agaist the establisment, you rather have to change the theories than denying the discoveries.

we have the same problem with everything in the world when we have made a geological clock or meter that we measure ages of material.

there is plenty of geological models that don’t hold water when you go into the physics of it when it is accepted purly on the basis of no further investigaiton than the trust in the people in the field of study.

some of these are so dumb that i don’t even want to bother nameing them or explain why i think so as they violate many laws of physics or make it improbable at best but is entertaing since they have no basis in realty that we can observe or explained in such a way that we can’t even test them,
the best evidence agaist physics in favior of dogma is models based on ingredients that can not be tested directly or not at all.

i love good science and is fascinated by it and love to look into things on a deeper level that triggers my curiosity and makes me really think. bad science on the other hand is what is the problem.
at least more than half the time i have had guesses about science in various things, i have guessed right as many advancement have been on par with my own level of discovery of science.
when i was a little younger let say from 6 to 10 years ago, i had guesses about conclusions of things that i found online to be state of the art or frontier scientific discovery that i came up with on my own in a few months and these scientists had used many many years to come to the same conclusions so if i was an idiot, i would not be able to draw such such conclusions in the first place and definetly not able to look up and find science articles of these discoveries.

my impression is that smart people look into all lots of information at once and is able to vade trough it without getting lost.

avarage people must have predispsed filters and would rather find shortcuts to get satifiable answers.

small minded people would simply make up their minds straight away without any research at all.

Just keep telling yourself that, friend. From your writing style, I’m guessing you’re like thirteen years old. As long as you continue to rationalize that you think you understand what you consume, you’ll continue to tell yourself that having a “good” IQ is enough. And, no, you don’t have any idea what science is and aren’t capable of judging whether any part of it is true or not. Fortunately, I won’t ever need to compete with you for a job.

(Edit 3-21-18:)

Still thinking a little bit about the comment above; reading the writing again still feels like it was produced by a preteen. I would be more apologetic about the tone I strike, but people really do need to understand what their limits are and this person’s limits are much smaller than they believe them to be. The sooner he or she discards the notion that “smart is enough,” the sooner this person will become able to build into something I would actually respect on the other side of an argument.

There are a couple things that I thought I would address which may be relevant to a broader audience. There are a few appeals that I should have watched all the way through the original video and that I would know better since there were many more examples to see.

In the age of filter bubbles, this appeal should ring to the heart of many people. The information is available, if only *you* (or me) bothered to see it. It’s true that people should be willing to consume information that goes against preconceived notions. Republicans should be willing to listen to the arguments made by Democrats and vice versa. But there is a limit. One should be willing to be exposed to true information that goes against preconceived notions.

The problem is this. The internet grants you access to so much information that you have no choice but to filter which information you consume in order to have enough time to simply live. There is more on the internet than you could consume if you spent a lifetime trying. But, there is a vast depth of complete and utter crap ensconced there too –it contains no provenance and no quality at all. And, if you spend your time consuming it, you will not get back that time later to do whatever it is that you would rather be doing. We are fighting for sufficient time to filter out the information we need from the information that simply keeps us preoccupied and we, all of us –me included–, have basically no capacity to tell which piece of information we need and which we want. These two things are different: you may need a car to drive to work on time, and while you may want a porche or a lamborghini, you can definitely get by without one. Which information should one consume? You can only tell what you need part of the time: even newsfeed information about another mass school shooting may not actually impact how you would live your life that day… you may want to hear about it because it’s dramatic, but you may not actually need to know that it happened since it won’t impact your life one way or the other in the foreseeable future anyway. Lots of people would claim they need to know about events like this, but do they really? On the other hand, your niece is kidnapped by a some stranger in a black mask and you didn’t even recognize the information from the Amber Alert. Didn’t you need to know that?

The video that I commented on above is a very long video. It’s like an hour and a half long. What criterion would you use to decide that you need to see it? I gave it a chance: I watched like 20 minutes of it. I know that I need time to do other things in my life and I gave it a chance anyway. Unfortunately, the first twenty minutes didn’t merely “buck my preconceived world view,” it showed me that the creator of the video has no regard for even a basic level of self-consistency or logic. With that judgment in place, I feel completely confident that I would be missing nothing by not watching another hour of the same crap. If I’m not finding self-consistency or logic in the first 20 minutes, why should I expect to find it later?

Now then, I have a completely different metric of measure from the commentor who posted that exceptionally long and vacuous comment yesterday. I feel deeply sorry for this person, but yes, that comment was vacuous. My measure for why I would watch that video is informed by my career; I am trained to evaluate information and toss it aside if it doesn’t measure up. I’m not claiming to be “smart”… oh, no, not smart, I’m claiming something else. I’m claiming that my training puts that video beneath me and I would rather spend time on something else. By no means am I perfect, and I’m aware of this, and yet I know flat out that there’s nothing useful in that video from a true scientific perspective.

A scientist has some obligation to engage with the public about what scientific truth is. I do the best I can with that in the time I have available. However, I also do not suffer fools well. One of the fundamental tales of intelligence in my book is not merely “being correct,” it’s recognizing that nobody is always correct all the time and being able to dump a wrong view out the window on choice. Assuming you understood something is easier than realizing that you didn’t completely understand it and being able to both admit to that and act upon it is profoundly hard. Knowing I didn’t have anything else to gain from that video after only watching twenty minutes shows that I was too stupid to make the same decision after only ten minutes. But, does this mean I didn’t give the video an adequate chance? How long must I sit still watching someone make basic logical mistakes before I decide that they have no idea what they’re talking about? Do you expect me to give false balance? Bleating about how I’m not engaging outside my world view is positively insipid when “world view” essentially amounts to the night and day admission that someone would rather vacillate over a fiction than accept a truth. Truth is pretty damn stark: it doesn’t require anybody to believe in it and it will continue to be true regardless of the relativism of a “world view.” For example, claiming that the world is flat is not an alternative world view, it is literally sticking your head in the sand and ignoring reality.


EM Drive paper passed Peer Review

Or, why passing peer review doesn’t suddenly mean that a technology is either validated or useful.

I just saw an article in Universe today claiming that a paper on the EM Drive is forthcoming. As you may remember from my previous post, the EM Drive is a piece of crank technology that is The One To Bring Them In and In Darkness Bind Them of the crank technology world. As they all know, it is about to change everything! (Or so they say.)

The device is an assymetrical microwave cavity which will apparently generate thrust when microwaves are injected into it without producing an apparent exhaust stream. The creator, Robert Shawyer, repeatedly invokes a crazy wrong interpretation of Special Relativity in order justify why his doodad works and makes grandiose claims about the capabilities of the device. Guido Fetta, a chemical engineer turned speculative technology wonk, has also jumped out into the public about his grand claims to test the device on a cubesat in orbit soon… Fetta’s description of why his “Cannae Drive” works is somewhat more reasonable than Shawyer’s is, but still a bit iffy…

The Cannae Drive also features an asymmetrical cavity, but is flatter than the EmDrive. According to Fetta, it works by deriving force from a reduced reflection coefficient at one of the device’s end plates, due to imbalances in the Lorentz force (a combination of electric and magnetic force on a point charge due to electromagnetic fields). Nasa Eagleworks, on the other hand, suggests that the Cannae Drive works by the cavity pushing against a “quantum virtual plasma” of particles that shift in and out of existence.

This description is actually not terribly aphysical because it’s essentially describing exactly what happens in a laser. Believe it or not, the NASA description is the crankier version since it seems to be invoking something along the lines of Casimir force. I’m not a huge fan of Eagle Labs because they skirt the ragged edge of being cranky themselves sometimes. (If it all works, I will gladly eat my words.)

I think that the one word that may be useful in this mess is the word “propellantless”… I mention this here because there could actually be a big difference in utility between claiming that the drive is “reactionless” (which is impossible) and “propellantless,” but this comes back to one’s definition of the substance of “propellant.”In the end, if the justification for the drive is simply that you don’t need to take along a huge quantity of reaction mass to make it work and can instead use a nuclear plant to power it, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Still, house needs to be cleaned.

First, the device must be described to work in a way that matches physics. No insane invocations of Special Relativity. This paper coming out is actually a nice first step toward doing just that. Passing Peer Review is a way of saying “Yes, science is being done! We have made measurements by accepted methodology and here are our results!” Which is actually much more impressive than anything that has come out of either Shawyer or Fetta for the last decade.

Making and reporting measurement is really all there is to experimental science: we may not have the interpretation right just yet, but we have numbers that can be compared to everything else in the field. How does the efficiency actually compare to a chemical rocket? Spin the numbers! It is all to show that the methodology is sound and the numbers are honest. And, those numbers will have to ultimately say that momentum and energy are conserved. The device is not… I repeat NOT… a reactionless drive. If it has a propellant, the substance is probably in photons, not gas or plasma like in conventional chemical rockets or ion drives.

The second thing that must happen is that the device should be engineered. The core of engineering is tweaking the physical parameters of the system to optimize the functioning of the device, which requires a model of the behavior… whether you understand the physical rationale behind it or not. Again, this Peer Reviewed paper is a terrific first step because it starts to characterize the actual observed behaviors of the system. If the rumored thrust is actually 1.2 mN/kW, great! A millinewton is a higher thrust than I was estimating in my previous writing, but how big of a powerplant does that require? A nuclear submarine can carry a 500 MW reactor, which would theoretically give hundreds of Newtons of thrust, which is not insignificant at all if the rumored numbers reported by Eagle Labs are true. Now, explain why and begin to tweak the envelop. If it is just a big microwave flashlight, fine, start plugging the physics into that and tell me what the actual performance limits are.

I will admit that my previous post may have been somewhat in error: it may turn out that this research is not a waste of time, but we’ve got to get away from the cranky hopefulness and start figuring out what we’ve actually got so that we can make it better.

Now, I have made something of a shift of stance in my writing of this post. Previously, I flat out called the EM Drive a waste of time. For a very long time it looked like a vanity obsession of a garage crank with delusions of popular fame. As long as it has that air, I won’t have much nice to say. Mutilating physics to build a miracle machine is crankery and there’s way too much of that happening in our world right now. What has changed now is simple: if there is a real, explicable physical phenomenon to measure, steps forward can be taken to find a real thing. It would be nice if there’s a world-altering discovery lurking in here, but that isn’t what we have yet. It really ultimately doesn’t matter to me where the idea came from, whether it came out of somebody’s garage or some rocketry lab… millions of ideas come from everywhere all the time: the point of the science is to sort through and find which observations are actually useful so that we can discard the ones that aren’t.

We’ll at least see if there’s something useful here and hopefully have a real guess about why it works. If the numbers are not reproducible or if there is some huge other way to interpret what has been seen, then it becomes time to discard the EM Drive. I guess that’s kind of the weird thing about frontier science: it always may not survive the meat grinder, no matter the source.