APS News

March 2008 (Volume 17, Number 3)

Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

SCI‑COPS to the Rescue!

By Jeff Lindsay

We have police to enforce traffic laws, drug laws, gun and alcohol laws. But who enforces the laws of nature? Who’s there to protect you from thermodynamic impossibilities? Who works night and day to keep our streets free of perpetual motion machines, anti-gravity gangs, and time-traveling thugs? Who puts their neck on the line to ensure that every action has an equal and opposite reaction? I’ll tell you who: it’s SCI-COPS, a crack team of scientists turned law enforcers.

One Sci-Cop agent, known in the force as “Agent Zeta” for his unorthodox use of zeta-potential measurements, has posthumorously left us his memoirs. An excerpt follows, from “The Strange Case of Madame Zelda and the Spurious Data Point.”

Tuesday, May 15, 1979. I’m a colloids guy, specializing in interfacial chemistry. Aqueous double layer interactions with cationic polymers used to be my bread and butter, but my bread kept landing butter side down. As a Sci-Cop, my specialty isn’t exactly in high demand. We don’t face many crimes in interfacial chemistry, so I’ve branched out into gravitational physics, chromodynamics, a little nonlinear optics, and herbal medicine. Can’t stagnate in Sci-Cops, or you’re out on the street, writing proposals again just to survive. I’ve been there, and I’m not going back.

Anyway, I was zipping through a few issues of the Journal of Quantum Gravity when a 207 was called in. That’s telekinesis–the unlawful use of mental power to move objects. It’s a felony. Minimum five years.

I went with my partner, Chuck “The Spectre” Manning. The call was for a third-floor apartment on National. A little sign on the door said it all: “Madame Zelda: Let the Power of The Mind Work Miracles in Your Live.” (Sic.) Yeah, she spelled “life” wrong. Criminals of her ilk don’t care about grammar. Orthography means nothing to them, entropy means nothing, conservation of mass and energy mean nothing. All they want is a buck–forget the rest of the universe.

The Spectre kicked the door open, then I rushed in with my lab book and camera. Document, document, document–the only way to make sure a case holds up to peer review. Madame Zelda was an old Russian lady. There were two customers, both men, staring at a big pile of nails under a glass cover. Madame Zelda had her eyes shut, looking like she had a bad migraine. The nails under the glass were moving. First one way, then the other, as if possessed by supernatural power. I took three successive photos to capture the motion while the Spectre was scribbling at top speed in his lab book. We flashed our badges.

The men–they were dupes. Maybe we’d do a little ‘technical lecture’ for them later on in the back alley, teach them a few things about equal and opposite reactions, maybe instruct them on Fourier’s law of heat transfer with the help of a few hot cigarettes. But the Madame was the kind of woman that could bring the whole galactic house of cards down if she got out of control. I asked what she was doing, and she answered: “I am demonstrating ze power of ze mind.”

In a flash, I had the cuffs out. Nothing better than a fast confession.

And then the Spectre spotted it. An electric cord running into a leg on the table. Her table had been prepared with an electric motor that moved a pair of magnets just below the surface.

We’d seen this once before. The criminals claimed that they didn’t really use telekinesis, but used hidden moving magnets to move the metal objects. So the mysterious motion would be due to forces fully in compliance with the laws of nature, and the criminals had to be released after nothing more than a ‘technical lecture’ on the stupidity of appearing to violate physical law. Madame Zelda was a pro. She’d prepared an ironclad alibi in case she were caught.

But we already had her confession. All the evidence we needed was on tape, in lab books, and on film. What about the data from the gimmicked table? We looked at each other and nodded. This data point was an outlier. (We’d both been brushing up on statistics.) No need to record it or consider it in our subsequent analyses. Drop that outlier and everything fits into one, solid, cogent whole that would pass peer review anywhere. Our publication of this case was not going to be ruined by a single spurious data point.

I took the table out to the dumpster. Madame Zelda may be a pro–but she was going to do hard time.

Some people have trouble with our tactics. Let me tell you, we’re dealing with the laws of nature here. Stuff that holds together the universe and Earth as we know it. You let people tamper with the laws of nature, and you might as well just kiss this whole cosmos good-bye. We’re doing the best we can–and usually, our best is pretty good. You want to know why your streets are free from perpetual motion machines and anti-gravity gangs? Because we do what it takes to stop crime.

Jeff Lindsay is a US patent agent, has a PhD in chemical engineering from Brigham Young University, a background in both academia and corporate R&D with 95 US patents, and is currently Director of Solution Development at Innovation Edge (innovationedge.com. Read the further adventures of the Sci-Cops at http://www.jefflindsay.com/SciCop.shtml. Reprinted with permission.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

March 2008 (Volume 17, Number 3)

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Articles in this Issue
March Meeting in New Orleans Spans Broad Range of Topics
Outstanding Referees Gain Overdue Recognition
Conference Takes a Critical Look at Graduate Education
Named Lecturers To Speak at March, April Meetings
Mixed Picture Emerges from Science and Engineering Indicators
Einstein@Home Scours the Heavens for Gravity Waves
New Policy Makes APS Membership Easier in Developing Countries
Over 300 Universities Endorse Joint Statement on Education
APS Valley Prize Rewards Tomorrow’s Physicists
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Washington Dispatch
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
International News
Focus on APS Topical Groups
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