Thursday, April 19, 2018

“The G-Engines are Coming”, or How the Fringe Funded Higgs before Higgs Was Cool


"Sure," I hear you saying, "Michael Gladych is cool and all, but what does this have to do with the history of physics?" Read on and find out how Gladych reported on the events that would fund Higgs Particle research as well as the relativistic framework that inspired the Alcubierre drive. The same events that inspired Nick Cook's antigravity classic, "The Hunt for Zero Point"



The article that brought Mike Gladych to the attention of fringe physics buffs everywhere, “The G-Engines are Coming”, appeared in its first incarnation in the pages of the November, 1956 issue of American Modeler.  The article begins with the bold assertion that nuclear airplanes will be made obsolete—by the artificial control of gravity—before they ever leave the design phase.  It then goes on to state that many aircraft companies were currently engaged in the study of the control of gravitation including: Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co., Convair, Bell Aircraft, Lear, Inc., and Sperry Gyroscope.  The article included optimistic quotes from aircraft industry executives Lawrence D. Bell, “We’re already working with nuclear fuels and equipment to cancel out gravity.”, and George Trimble, stating that he thought the effort to conquer gravity, “could be done in about the time it took to build the first atom bomb.”  In a rather scientific flourish, the article also quotes William P. Lear, commenting on the elimination of g-forces due to large accelerations,

“All matter within the ship would be influenced by the ship’s gravitation only.  This way, no matter how fast you accelerated or changed course, your body would not feel it any more than it now feels the tremendous speed and acceleration of the earth.”

How was all of this going to be accomplished?  According to Gladych, through recent experimental advances in particle physics, “In the course of such experiments, Dr. Stanley Deser and Dr. Richard Arnowitt of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study found the gravity culprit—tiny particles responsible for gravitation.  Without those G-(gravity) particles, an atom of say, iron still behaved as any other iron atom except for one thing—it was weightless.”

At first blush, the article seems to be purely fanciful.  However, a little background research  revealed that its primary source material came from a Gravity Day meeting of the Gravity Research Foundation—GRF.  The GRF is an organization started and sponsored by Roger Babson.

Babson made his millions in the stock market and then safeguarded them by selling off most of his investments a few weeks before the crash of 1929.  He attributed his success to heeding the words of Newton, “What goes up must come down.”  Babson, a graduate of MIT, went on to build a financial empire printing stock picking advice pamphlets.  Much of his advice was based on Newton’s three laws.  In addition to founding the GRF, he also started Babson University.  He and his wife were avid collectors of Newton memorabilia and the university that shares Babson’s name also came to own one of the largest collections of historic Newton artifacts, including Newton’s study, shipped piece by piece from England to Massachusetts and reconstructed there.

Inspired by tragic drownings that claimed the lives of two of his family members, Babson set out to found the Gravity research foundation in order that “insert gravity quote from Babson essay contest here”.  For more detail on Babson, and his quest to conquer gravity, see David Kaiser’s graduate dissertation , and Jon Mooalem’s article in Harper magazine .


Each year, the GRF hosted the Gravity Days event at Babson’s estate near New Boston, NH.  These events were attended by industry moguls such as Thomas Edison, Hunter Agnew Bahnson Jr.; Clarence Birdseye, of frozen food fame; and Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter.  Bill Lear, mentioned in Gladych’s article, was also known to attend.  The meetings consisted of a day or two of financial seminars interspersed with presentations about the latest in anti-gravity research.  

At each Gravity Days event, awards were presented for the winners of that year’s gravity essay contest.  The contest offered prizes for the best 

“…essays on the possibilities of discovering: (i) some partial insulator, reflector, or absorber of gravity; (ii) some alloy or other substance, the atoms of which can be agitated or rearranged by gravity to throw off heat; or (iii) some other reasonable method of harnessing, controlling, or neutralizing gravity.” 

For the first twenty years or so, not a single scientist from the halls of academia entered the contest.  The academic freeze-out was broken by Bryce DeWitt in 1954.  Bryce was a well-established relativity physicist who had received his degree with the mentorship of John Archibald Wheeler.  The next year Richard Arnowitt and Stanley Deser won the award.  They were both worked at the Institute for Advanced Studies, run by Robert Oppenheime,r who instructed them to return the cash prize.  They did not.  The essay, relating recently discovered subatomic particles, the kaons, with gravity appears as a subject of Gladych’s article.

Gladych’s article, fanciful in the extreme by today’s standards, portrays the optimism of an industrial culture which at the time hoped to bend nature to its every whim.  And, while none of the article’s claims, such as anti-gravity engines within a decade, came true, the chain of events, put into motion by the meetings it chronicled, funded gravity research that ultimately led to the discovery of the Higgs boson.  

Upon reading Bryce DeWitt’s prize-winning essay, the aforementioned Agnew Hunter Bahnson Jr. approached him with an offer to head up an industry funded gravity research institute that would operate within the halls of academe.  Bahnson in addition to being the CEO of Bahnson Industries, was also a pilot, and dreamed of being the first man in outer space.  To this end, he provided and marshaled a significant amount of funding towards gravity research.  Wheeler advised DeWitt to accept the position<add citation>.  Bahnson rounded up funding from his many contacts in the world of business and the Air Force, and in 1956, Bryce DeWitt and his wife Cecile Morette-DeWitt –an accomplished physicist in her own right—became the first co-directors of the Institute for Field Physics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  A few years later a visiting scholar, Peter Higgs, would write one of his seminal papers on the Higgs boson [5].  His visit was funded by an Air Force grant authored by the DeWitts.

The Higgs boson wasn’t the only unintended consequence of the GRF.  One of the industry luminaries quoted in Gladych’s article was Richard Trimble of the Martin Aircraft Company.  Trimble was a board member, instrumental in the formation, of the Research Institute for Advanced Studies .  The institute was started under the auspices of Martin Aircraft with “two unorthodox goals—spaceflight and the control of gravity itself for propulsion.”   Interestingly, the same reference pointed out: “Five years ago most scientists held that anybody who proposed an artificial satellite was a dyed-in-the-wool-crackpot.”   

One of the first scientists hired by Trimble’s organization was Louis Witten.  Dr. Witten described the situation like this in a recent historical roundtable, “Enter the Witten quote about funding and supporting children.”  

RIAS provided support and an environment that enabled Witten to develop himself into a premier relativist.  One of the children he raised was named Edward Witten, today an acclaimed string physicist.  The younger Witten is so prolific and so often produces respected results that his peers have jokingly created an annual award for the “best NEW string theory”.  NEW is an acronym for “Not Edward Witten.”  Trimble accomplished his goal of placing a satellite in stable orbit.  He then went on to lead the manned spacecraft effort for NASA’s Apollo program.
There’s one final aside to the G-Engines article.  William P. Lear’s comments about controlling gravity within the ship to prevent its occupants from feeling the effects of large accelerations was shown to be conceptually valid thirty-eight years later by Miguel Alcubierre.  In his article, Alcubierre shows that Einstein’s field equations will allow a solution describing space curved into a gravity hill behind a ship and a gravity well in front.  With this configuration, the ship, sitting on the flat space between the hill and the well, is in constant free-fall, accelerating without the occupants feeling the effects of the motion, (Figure 6).


It might seem gratuitous to point this out, but there’s a connection.  Alcubierre derived his ‘warp’ equations using the ADM 3+1 general relativity formalism.  The A and D of ADM are Arnowitt and Deser.  They developed the formalism with Charles Missner in 1959 five years after winning the GRF essay contest.


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