What to do when experiments produce unexpected results?

The most interesting and revolutionary science comes from unexpected results that violate what we thought we knew about how the world works.  Almost by definition, most of these results turn out to be flawed experiments.  So the great majority of scientists have given up even looking at them.

But science stops advancing if these potentially paradigm-shifting experiments can’t get any traction.   We need to invest time and money in high-risk experiments, even as we recognize that most of them will fail.

National Geographic reports on a NASA experiment that appears to violate Newton’s laws of motion, using a “light-drive” engine. A rocket engine works by pushing something (usually combustion exhaust) out the back to make the rocket go forward.  “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  So the total momentum of exhaust+rocket stays the same.

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A “light-drive” engines just shines a flashlight out the back.  “Light-drive” engines are wonderfully efficient from the vantage of requiring no store of fuel on board to push out the back; but their problem is that the thrust they get is limited by the ratio of energy to momentum for light particles, and this is fixed at c, the velocity of light, which is a very big number.

The article describes an experiment where the rocket engine spits radio waves out the back and gets about 300 times as much thrust out of the front as it ought to get.  Some physicists speculate about vacuum fluctuations or other weird quantum effects that let us “push against the vacuum”.  But most assume that there is something wrong with the experiment, and it’s not worth their time to figure out what it is.  The latter are probably right, but what if they’re wrong?

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