A breakhrough? Or wishful thinking?
Seeing the Light
Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser
The renowned Smithsonian Institute recently published an article “Scientists Create a New Form of Light by Linking Photons.” Yeah, a “New Form of Light” – really?
This revolutionary discovery is eloquently described by freelance journalist Marissa Fessenden in a post published as noted above. The research report she refers to has recently been published in the Science magazine, authored by no less than ten authors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Princeton University, National Institute of Standards and Technology and University of Maryland(NIST/UM) , and the University of Chicago, surely, all renowned institutes of higher learning and top notch research. The lead author, Dr. Qi-Yu Liang, currently hails from the NIST/UM.
Novel Form of Light
Fessenden’s essay (quoting an MIT press release) contains such explanations as:
The physicists’ theoretical model suggests that as a single photon moves through the cloud of rubidium, it hops from one atom to another, “like a bee flitting between flowers,” the press release explains.
For easy understanding of the nature and significance of the work by common folks like you and me, the article in Science adds, above the scientific Abstract, a précis that reads:
Forming photonic bound states
Photons do not naturally interact with each other and must be coaxed into doing so. Liang et al. show that a gas of Rydberg atoms—a cloud of rubidium atoms excited by a sequence of laser pulses—can induce strong interactions between propagating photons. The authors could tune the strength of the interaction to make the photons form dimer and trimer bound states. This approach should prove useful for producing novel quantum states of light and quantum entanglement on demand.
It certainly sounds like a breakthrough discovery with great potential for future practical applications and advances. Important developments do occur from time to time. However, not all findings fall into the category of scientific breakthroughs. I’d like to mention three past discoveries of note.
The Polywater Discovery
The current photon discovery reminds me of the late 1960’s when a claim of the discovery of “Polywater” made the news circuit then. That novel form of water was not only of obscure interest to some scientists, it was portrayed as a major menace to any life depending on the current forms of water. It was hypothesized that, by just adding a drop of it to 300 km long Lake Ontario might –instantaneously – “polymerize” the entire lake into something of the viscosity of gelato.
The problem then was that no other laboratory could replicate those earth (or water) shattering findings. In the end, the novel substance thought to have been discovered was determined to be nothing more than trace remnants of stop-cock grease. Polywater, as proclaimed then, did not and does not exist; period. It wasn’t a breakthrough-discovery after all.
In retrospect, the originators of the polywater (PW) claim were probably convinced to have stumbled upon a breakthrough finding. However, it turned out to be wishful thinking, according to D. Rousseau, a classical example of “pathological science.”
Before I go on about the novel “Photon-Threesome” discovered now, allow me brief excursions to two other claims of historic science breakthroughs, “Cold Fusion” and the “Piltdown Man.”
Cold and Hot Fusion
Cold Fusion (CF) sounded like the Holy Grail for energy. In essence, it was a term to describe a controlled low temperature (“cold”) harnessing of the energy of a nuclear (fusion-type) bomb without having to deal with the destructive force of such. Clearly, successful CF would have led to an “energy-nirvana” on earth – if true. In the end, CF was determined to be just another example of wishful thinking.
In contrast, Hot Fusion (HF) does exist. The long running Tokamak and ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) systems are also in pursuit of controlled HF using super-high temperatures with atoms suspended in magnetic force fields. Of course, the idea is great and, eventually, it might become reality. At least it is theoretically possible, though the technological requirements are extremely high.
So let’s go on to the next example, namely a true hoax:
The Piltdown Man
In contrast to the PW and CF ideas, the Piltdown Man (PM) was nothing but an elaborate hoax, right from the start. It’s over one hundred years ago that this fraud was perpetrated in England. The amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson claimed that he had discovered the “missing link” between ape and man. Clever Charles had combined orangutan and human skull fragments to appear as part of the same “find.” It took four decades to definitively prove his assemblage as purposeful forgery and hoax.
So, you may wonder, where does that leave the newly discovered “photon threesome?”
I wonder myself. Could it be real, is it a mistaken interpretation of some observations, or another elaborate scientific hoax?
It’s not an easy question to answer but I’m willing to go out on a limb here. For that, it is useful to look at past records, like PW and PM (and there are others, not just in the field of science; for example, think Bre-X ), to find the commonalities that made them “sensations” at the time.
There are numerous commonalities between false reports, whether by honest mistake or wanton intention. They include a variety of characteristics, such as:
- Main stream media (MSM) “news worthiness” (here “new form of light”).
- Coming from professionals at widely recognized entities (here MIT, NIST, etc.).
- New theory, combined with new experimental data (here “tunable interactions”).
- Uncommon terms, here “polariton” (described as “a hybrid that is part photon, part atom”).
- Suggestion of applicability to other, yet more futuristic ideas (here “quantum entanglement” and “light crystals”).
In short, they combine newsworthiness, perceived importance, new experimental findings, a new theory, new words with vague definitions, far-flung futuristic ideas, and come with “name-plate” sources.
So, my dear readers, what’s YOUR take on this news?
Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is a professional scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Technical University, Munich, Germany. He has worked as a research scientist and project chief at Environment Canada‘s Canada Centre for Inland Waters for over 30 years and is currently Director of Research at TerraBase Inc. He is author of nearly 300 publications in scientific journals, government and agency reports, books, computer programs, trade magazines, and newspaper articles.
Dr. Kaiser has been president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research, a peer reviewer of numerous scientific papers for several journals, Editor-in-Chief of the Water Quality Research Journal of Canada for nearly a decade, and an adjunct professor. He has contributed to a variety of scientific projects and reports and has made many presentations at national and international conferences.
Dr. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts
Dr. Kaiser can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org