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[whitespace] Bernard Haisch Photograph by George Sakkestad

Heart of the Matter: Bernard Haisch and two colleagues have proposed a radical new theory of the nature of matter that could ultimately allow humans to harness the forces of gravity and inertia, bringing an age of space travel and a limitless source of clean energy.

Weird Science

A Palo Alto physicist believes Newton's Law may be negotiable, opening the possibility of moving science closer to science fiction

By Mark K. Anderson

WE'RE ALL LUMINOUS BEINGS--and everything in the universe is made of nothing more than light. Pure light.

Depending on the available pharmacopoeia, the above statement is perceived today as either ludicrously daft or really deep, man. In either case, it's not something one would mutter within the sensibly decorated walls of polite society. Oddly enough, however, the vanguard of modern physics is now heading on a collision course with that very same proposition.

Bernard Haisch is an astrophysicist based in Palo Alto, formerly working on a NASA grant at Lockheed, now heading up his own nascent scientific think tank, the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics. Haisch has been on the trail of light for the better part of the 1990s.

Haisch and two colleagues have proposed a radical new theory of the nature of matter that could ultimately allow humans to harness the forces of gravity and inertia, bringing an age of space travel and a limitless source of clean energy. The theory is based on the premise that mass, which causes physical objects to feel the tug of gravity and respond to the law of inertia, may not exist as a fundamental property of matter. Instead, those forces are governed by a field of light that pervades all space known as a "zero-point field." If the field can be manipulated on a large scale, so too could the forces that tether humans to earth and make us slaves to fossil fuels, shattering the natural limits on society in the 21st century.

The theory was first proposed in a paper published in The Physical Review in 1994 but is just now gaining momentum in mainstream physics. So impressed with the work of Haisch and his two collaborators, Alfonso Rueda at Cal State Long Beach and H.E. Puthoff of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Texas, Arthur C. Clarke gave the three stellar treatment in his 1997 novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey. In the book, Clarke names the propulsion system in the novel's starship a "SHARP drive" after Haisch, Rueda, Puthoff and their theoretical predecessor, Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov, who developed some of the principles upon which the zero-point field theory is based.

"'Inertia as a Zero-Point Field Lorentz Force' by B. Haisch, A. Rueda and H.E. Puthoff ... may one day be regarded as a landmark paper, and for the purposes of fiction I have made it so," Clarke explains in his afterword. "If HR&P's theory can be proved, it opens up the prospect--however remote--of anti-gravity 'space drives' and the even more fantastic possibility of controlling inertia. This could lead to some interesting situations: if you gave someone the gentlest touch, they would promptly disappear at thousands of kilometers an hour, until they bounced off the other side of the room a fraction of a millisecond later."

Bernard Haisch

WHILE HAISCH, Rueda and Puthoff's scientific advances have inspired one of the great minds in science fiction, the underlying facts (chronicled on Haisch's website at www.jse.com/haisch) remain simmering on the stove, awaiting further study.

In the words of Haisch's prime benefactor, the Silicon Valley wunderkind Joseph P. Firmage--co-founder of the booming Internet firm USWeb and author of the 600-page extraterrestrial-countenancing opus The Truth (www.thewordistruth.org)--HR&P's work holds great promise for both the deep thinkers and the Trekkies among us.

"I am excited both on technical and philosophical grounds," Firmage wrote in a recent interview via email. "The technical implications of a complete understanding of atomic electrodynamics are beyond imagination: complete resolution of our environmental crises; total freedom of movement on Earth and in Space, revolution in the standard of living for all human beings, etc."

While the gee-whiz factor of Haisch, Rueda and Puthoff's discoveries has turned some scientists off, the same prospect excites visionaries and mavericks alike--and Firmage is frequently labeled with both characterizations.

"The ontological implications of this are as amazing as the technical implications," Firmage continued. "Society is in desperate need of an ontology that can connect science and spirituality. In my view, it is no coincidence that the technologies we are imagining will come with an understanding of the fundamental connection between all beings everywhere--an understanding which enfolds and integrates existing worldviews."

The problem Haisch et al. tackled comes from a dust bunny that scientists have been sweeping under the carpet for years. It has to do with the intrinsic energy of empty space. That is, even if you clear away every last iota of matter from inside a box, that box will still contain a measurable amount of energy. This so-called zero-point energy is a manifestation of the zero-point field, a seething tide of electromagnetic radiation (a.k.a. light) and a menagerie of subatomic particles that pop into and out of existence in the blink of an eye--long enough to leave traces that physicists can construct theories and experiments around but not long enough for anyone to be able to see or detect directly.

The first experiment that pointed to the existence of the zero-point field was conducted by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casmir, who predicted that two metal plates, if isolated in a vacuum, would be pushed together because the zero-point field pressing against the outside of the plates is a little stronger than that against the inside. The existence and intensity of this "Casmir force" have been experimentally verified many times in the 50 years since Casmir's revelation.

But rather than grappling with the notion of the zero-point field from within the constructs of present-day physical theory, Haisch borrowed a trick from Albert Einstein and simply postulated the zero-point field's existence. (Einstein founded his theory of relativity on a similar conceptual leap, assuming as given the troublesome experimental results that other turn-of-the-century scientists were trying to shoehorn into existing physical theories.)

In doing so, Haisch realized that inertia, the physical property we all bump our heads on when we have to stop our car on a dime, can actually be described as an electromagnetic interaction with the zero-point field. Previous to this, inertia was one of the many things physicists had long ago given up explaining: Inertia doesn't come from anything; it just is. Newton said so.

Suddenly, then, if the thing that keeps resting bodies at rest and moving bodies in motion is just an electromagnetic phenomenon, that means it can also potentially be manipulated. Design a craft that can control inertia and you have the power to go racing off toward infinity without being crushed by the g-forces--and to stop in a heartbeat without flying through the windshield.

Yet the new zero-point field theory has, for all its elegance, not yet received the imprimatur of experimental verification. And nobody's anywhere near the engineering phase--nor is Haisch absolutely certain that inertia-tweaking of anything from atoms to starships is even possible.

"If you can manipulate the inertia of a spacecraft, then you really have something," he says. "But who knows? It may never happen. It may always be something that's limited to tiny, microscopic scales if at all."

Furthermore, the group's new zero-point field ideas currently engender, as one might expect, much doubtfulness within the scientific community and many shrugged shoulders outside it.

For all its laboratory observability, the zero-point field remains something of a pariah in modern physics. Yes, skeptics admit, it's the source of the Casmir effect and a few other arcane phenomena, but it's not a terribly big deal, and if it were, the cosmological implications would be dire.

Characteristic of the skeptics is Paul Wesson of Canada's University of Waterloo, who argues that if Haisch's theories were correct, the overwhelming energy would literally collapse the visible universe from all its gravitational oomph. In a recent email, Wesson explains that zero-point field energy is "many orders bigger than allowed by experiment or astronomical observations."

Dan Cole, a physicist at Boston University, has been a joint author on papers with all three zero-point scientists, and while he finds some of their ideas intriguing, he remains unconvinced.

"I've corresponded with them, particularly with Rueda," Cole noted recently, "and I'm fairly sure that they agree now that the zero-point field contributes to inertial mass but is not the sole source of it."

Haisch retorts that although they sometimes couch their discoveries in the noncommittal language of scientific discourse, he remains convinced that the zero-point field is the central arbiter of gravity and inertia.

SO, ONE SHOULDN'T be surprised that on Oct. 12, the 1999 Nobel Prize in physics went to two Dutch particle physicists whose work, in part, describes mass assuming the old "it just is what it is" views of inertia. Stockholm may someday acknowledge that mass, inertia and gravitation are merely artifacts of the zero-point field. But the King of Sweden certainly won't be hopping onboard till many more high-powered institutions have put their weight behind the little theory that could.

"It's been a wait-and-see attitude," Haisch says. "I mean, nobody's published anything that shows where we're wrong. But nobody's jumped on the bandwagon either. ... And I can't blame them. Hell, I do the same thing myself. We're all busy. I get, God knows, probably two or three papers a week from people with their new theories of the universe. And most of them wind up in my trash can, because I just don't have time for the stuff."

Still, given its high-profile entry in the annals of science fiction and its new multimillion-dollar think tank, Haisch and company's zero-point field work is far from the realm of crackpot basement research. Indeed, the stakes are so high that both the theory's significance and its simplicity are easily lost for all its seeming outlandishness.

In August 1998, for instance, Discover magazine profiled Haisch in a survey article on the forefront of relativity research today. It attributed some bizarre statements to him--such as his supposed claim that 20th-century physics is "entirely erroneous"--which he vehemently disputes.

As he wrote in a letter to the editor published three months later, "You describe me as if I were some Nashville songwriter and would-be physicist trying to prove that 'Einstein's theory of relativity ... is a big mistake' (typical crackpot enterprise), when in fact I am a successful professional astrophysicist whose NASA-funded research on the electrodynamics of the zero-point field is based on Einstein's special relativity."

He did so not to disown his songwriting aspirations, by the way. In both his letter to Discover and in our interview, he noted with considerable pride that he and his wife (an opera-trained singer named Marsha Sims, whose family name he takes for his songwriting endeavors) have seen their work enter the Nashville arena with the Civil War ballad "Common Ground," released on country singer Paul Jefferson's one and only major label album, an eponymous 1996 release on Almo Sounds.

But for pure poetry, it's doubtful that Sims and "Sims" will ever be able to rival the elegance that lies beneath the grand unified theory that snuck up on the unsuspecting world five years ago.

"We tend to think that the world is composed of this solid stuff called matter and that light comes and goes," Haisch said. "You turn on a light switch and light appears. You turn it off and it makes the light go away. It's a transient thing. But I think it's really the other way around. I think this whole world of matter rests upon an underlying sea of light that is the basis of our physical laws. All atoms are in a sense creatures of light in this regard."

For the record, Haisch does harbor a fantasy of someday landing both a Grammy and a Nobel. So listen up, Nashville. Love and light are just a hit away.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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