Is this science? Or science fiction? A Russian researcher working in Finland claims he has discovered a way to partially negate the effects of gravity--using a spinning disk made of a superconducting ceramic. The claim has yet to be verified, but it's being taken seriously by NASA and scientists elsewhere. Four groups, including one at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are scrambling to duplicate the Finnish antigravity setup.
The so-called gravity shield was brought into being accidentally by Eugene E. Podkletnov while he was doing research on high-temperature superconducting materials at Tampere University of Technology. To create the shield, he chills the disk to around -334F and zaps it with an electromagnetic field that causes it to spin. At around 3,000 revolutions per minute, anything placed above the rotating disk supposedly loses some 2% of its weight. Podkletnov claims this weight loss occurs in all materials--metal, wood, and plastic. Even more astounding: If two disks are stacked one atop the other, the weight loss reportedly doubles to 4%.
A FUROR. Details on the phenomenon had been slated to appear in the October issue of the Journal of Physics-D: Applied Physics, published by the British Institute of Physics. But a Sept. 1 article in London's Sunday Telegraph, based on the scientific paper, precipitated a furor. One of the listed co-authors complained he is no longer connected with the project. Podkletnov then withdrew the paper--sparking charges of misconduct, for including the name of a former associate without his permission, and cries of outright fraud.
NASA remains undeterred. The scientific uproar "won't affect our plans. We're going to continue," says L. Whitt Brantley, chief of NASA's Advanced Concepts Office. If the antigravity effect is real, he adds, "we want to be the first to know." Cloning Podkletnov's disk is NASA's main mission now. The disk is about 11 inches across and may take a couple months to construct. "Building a superconductor disk of that size hasn't been done in the U.S. yet," explains Ronald J. Koczor, a chief engineer at NASA Marshall.
A gadget that defies gravity would have profound business implications. Built into cars, trains, and planes, it could drastically slash fuel consumption and open new vistas for designing vehicles with little concern for size and weight. And if a stack of 100 disks, each providing a 2% weight loss, can produce a cumulative 200% weight loss, that could launch spacecraft.
In addition to NASA, laboratories in Italy, Canada, and India are trying to duplicate Podkletnov's work, says Giovanni Modanese, a theoretical physicist at Max-Planck-Institut for Physics in Munich. And Antioch University researcher John H. Schnurer was already cranking up his first stab at antigravity as this issue went to press. If it works, Schnurer plans to assemble a stack of four or five disks. "I want a weight loss of 10% or more," he says. "You'll be able to feel that by placing your hand over the disks."
There is a theoretical basis for the effect. Ning Li, a senior research scientist at the University of Alabama's Huntsville campus, believes superconducting disks are analogous to permanent magnets. A magnet's field comes from millions of magnetic particles all oriented in the same direction. Similarly, each atom in a whirling superconductor creates a minuscule "gravitomagnetic" field--and if all the atoms are aligned, Li says these gravity fields can compound in strength.
MANY SKEPTICS. Modanese of Max-Planck disputes Li's theory. He insists the only feasible explanation is an esoteric quantum-physics reaction that can soak up gravitational energy. In support of this idea, Modanese says Podkletnov told him in April that objects lose weight even under the spinning disk.
However, the overwhelming reaction among scientists is to reject both notions. After all, gravity is a force that's not supposed to be pliable. The doubters contend there's a simpler explanation: some kind of error that's tainting Podkletnov's results.
Modanese believes Podkletnov has been diligent, so antigravity is probably real. "If confirmed," he adds, it will have "amazing applications." The stickler, of course, is "if confirmed." Is Podkletnov a shoo-in for a Nobel Prize, or a candidate for a special-effects Oscar? The issue should be settled within a few weeks.