There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the recent paper on the reactionless thrust device known as the EMDrive. While it’s clear that a working EM Drive would violate well established scientific theories, what isn’t clear is how such a violation might be resolved. Some have argued that the thrust could be an effect of Unruh radiation, but the authors of the new paper argue instead for a variation on quantum theory known as the pilot wave model.
One of the central features of quantum theory is its counter-intuitive behavior often called particle-wave duality. Depending on the situation, quantum objects can have characteristics of a wave or characteristics of a particle. This is due to the inherent limitations on what we can know about quanta. In the usual Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, an object is defined by its wavefunction. The wavefunction describes the probability of finding a particle in a particular location. The object is in an indefinite, probabilistic state described by the wavefunction until it is observed. When it is observed, the wavefunction collapses, and the object becomes a definite particle with a definite location.
While the Copenhagen interpretation is not the best way to visualize quantum objects it captures the basic idea that quanta are local, but can be in an indefinite state. This differs from the classical objects (such as Newtonian theory) where things are both local and definite. We can know, for example, where a baseball is and what it is doing at any given time.
The pilot wave model handles quantum indeterminacy a different way. Rather than a single wavefunction, quanta consist of a particle that is guided by a corresponding wave (the pilot wave). Since the position of the particle is determined by the pilot wave, it can exhibit the wavelike behavior we see experimentally. In pilot wave theory, objects are definite, but nonlocal. Since the pilot wave model gives the same predictions as the Copenhagen approach, you might think it’s just a matter of personal preference. Either maintain locality at the cost of definiteness, or keep things definite by allowing nonlocality. But there’s a catch.
Although the two approaches seem the same, they have very different assumptions about the nature of reality. Traditional quantum mechanics argues that the limits of quantum theory are physical limits. That is, quantum theory tells us everything that can be known about a quantum system. Pilot wave theory argues that quantum theory doesn’t tell us everything. Thus, there are “hidden variables” within the system that quantum experiments can’t reveal. In the early days of quantum theory this was a matter of some debate, however both theoretical arguments and experiments such as the EPR experiment seemed to show that hidden variables couldn’t exist. So, except for a few proponents like David Bohm, the pilot wave model faded from popularity. But in recent years it’s been demonstrated that the arguments against hidden variables aren’t as strong as we once thought. This, combined with research showing that small droplets of silicone oil can exhibit pilot wave behavior, has brought pilot waves back into play.
How does this connect to the latest EM Drive research? In a desperate attempt to demonstrate that the EM Drive doesn’t violate physics after all, the authors spend a considerable amount of time arguing that the effect could be explained by pilot waves. Basically they argue that not only is pilot wave theory valid for quantum theory, but that pilot waves are the result of background quantum fluctuations known as zero point energy. Through pilot waves the drive can tap into the vacuum energy of the Universe, thus saving physics! To my mind it’s a rather convoluted at weak argument. The pilot wave model of quantum theory is interesting and worth exploring, but using it as a way to get around basic physics is weak tea. Trying to cobble a theoretical way in which it could work has no value without the experimental data to back it up.
At the very core of the EM Drive debate is whether it works or not, so the researchers would be best served by demonstrating clearly that the effect is real. While they have made some interesting first steps, they still have a long way to go.
Paper: Harris, D.M., et al. Visualization of hydrodynamic pilot-wave phenomena, J. Vis. (2016) DOI 10.1007/s12650-016-0383-5