Chapter 22 - Prioritizing Pioneering Research (8/27/09)

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Notes by David A Roffman on Chapter 22 of


Chapter by Marc G. Millis, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio


     Chapter 22 deals with the history of progress in breakthroughs in science and how to prioritize and present to potential project financiers.  One of few projects to test advanced propulsion ideas was the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics (BPP) Project.  With a whopping 1.6 million dollars (shades of Dr. Evil’s demands in an Austin Powers movie), investigations into the unknown with ideas from all over the world were carried out.  Progress with science and technology has been viewed in many fashions, and these will be discussed.

     It is agreed that existing institutions do not like change.  Advancement follows an S-shaped curve.  Progress is slow, then a breakthrough occurs, and then a point of diminishing return occurs.  Finally a new S-curve is born.  Others claim that tools drive technological advance.  Another approach is a paradigm shifts.  New data leads to new progress.  Data is based on natural observations.

     There are two types of useful researchers: good and great.  The first tackles easy problems that are well known (much knowledge is already there) and thus traditional.  These issues are low key.  Great researchers are those that wage war against major (unsubstantiated) prejudices in science.  They understand limitations, but do not restrict themselves to the norms of the more traditional researchers. 

     Deceased author, Arthur C. Clarke had his own set of “laws” for scientific progress, which summarize what is typically true. Many rocket scientists were inspired by science fiction.  While breakthroughs are typically not thought to be systematic, there is the Horizon Mission Methodology.

     Step one is to define a general goal that is out of reach with modern technology.  This forces scientists to leave their comfort zone, and try something different.  Next is brainstorming.  Now science fiction (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) is welcome for ideas.  However, after this step, scientists must now find the make or break issues with their syfy technology.  Grand challenges have now been identified.  Researchers must now survey the available knowledge about the topic, and identify information gaps.  Then it is time to start solving the problems.

     Success may come from unexpected areas.  Organizations’ goals and the proposed technology must be compared.  Vision must always be combined with rigor.  Those that do not look forward to the future will automatically dismiss too many new ideas.  Rigor of the approach should be evaluated, and not just feasibility.  If there is only vision, then the work is not credible.  The BPP project’s categorization of submissions will be shown at the bottom of the page.

     Low significance and exaggerations may generate bad data.  Good science must be used when submitting data (large sample size, repeatability of experiment, etc.).  Independent confirmation of results is desired.  Crackpots must be avoided, but those that believe in conspiracies regarding their work, or that believe his or her results are the begin all, and end all are included.  BPP did respond to many inquiries, including those without exceptionally rigorous results.  Studies have shown that helping others who are mislead can benefit the assister.  Inflammatory words were avoided, so as not provoke emotional responses full of anger.

    The BPP project searched for knowledge (see the colorized reproduction below of Figure 5 taken from page 696 of Frontiers - Chapter 22, which is U.S. Government property with no copyright).  Even null results were useful.  Reliable knowledge was more important than a breakthrough.  Any research project requires balance.  Short-term goals need to be set to achieve long term ones.  Many projects try to find feasibility and then develop, but the BPP was not that way.  BPP required a wide variety of projects, low cost budgets, and little time to complete items.  The Department of Defense has a lot more money than this (hundreds of millions to billions) for its budget.  For BPP the large sums needed for success did not exist in the unclassified realm.  Comment: Without a review of Black Budget research, any survey in this area is likely to be not only incomplete, but potentially disinformation.

     Now then, reviews of projects must be impartial, and volunteers must be found.  Experimentation rather than theory must be stressed, as applicability matters more than equations. I believe that theory must come first, as new areas are being ventured into.  Do not try something without looking at the fundamental physics first.  Multiplicative scoring was used, as to ensure a score of zero if mandatory criteria were not met.  Substantial citations and rigor were needed to pass screening tests.  There were multiple readers for each submitted piece.  It had to be judged if new effects were being reported, or old ones were being refined. 

     Although the BPP project provided no new technology, it did rule out some things, until its funding was cut.  It focused on: quantum vacuum energy, reaction mass in space, revisiting Mach’s principle, coupling fundamental approaches, and other science fiction ideas.  The real question is, why has NASA made no real unclassified effort to advance space technologies?   My guess is that there are too few dollars chasing too many things.  They maintain manned and unmanned spaceflight, space telescopes (such as James-Webb which may not launch), satellites, and landers amongst other things. If they focused most of their money on one thing such as manned mars missions or another BPP then there might be real progress.

     Maybe it’s already been done, but classified.  The lack of money in the BPP project certainly entertains this idea.  A final note is that I have found a possible employer.  Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had a space budget in 2007 of half a billion dollars.  Although, black budget may be best for employment (I prefer it), it is most likely going to have billions of dollars in unaccounted for research funds.  More money equals more possibilities.  I would like to congratulate the authors and assistants of the textbook for an exceptional job of compiling information and possibilities.  Also, I look forward to working with many of the authors in field.



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