Does Jupiter have new bolts?
LOOK at it this way: an outfit founded and paid for by a Texan fried-chicken magnate hires (among others) a physicist who has done government-sponsored work on extra-sensory perception. After nine years of secretive research it says it has discovered that one of the basic laws of electronics can be breached and that its ideas can revolutionise the world of high technology. That is how sceptics would describe the activities of Jupiter Technologies of Austin, Texas.
Now look at it another way: a pioneering inventor and technologist with a distinguished track record claims a breakthrough in his field. After preliminary investigations, scientists and officials from the CIA, America’s armed forces and the departments of energy and commerce convene a special meeting in Washington to look at his ideas. Put that way it sounds less cranky. Next week an assessment group set up by the defence department will try to distinguish crankiness from truth.
The group will be investigating what Jupiter’s chief inventor, Mr Kenneth Shoulders, calls condensed-charge technology. Mr Shoulders, who was for four years a staff scientist at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in California, has invented and developed an extraordinary mixture of gadgets, ranging from tiny radios to backpack flying machines. He is best known as the father of vacuum micro-electronics, the technology that seeks to miniaturise old-fashioned vacuum tubes to a scale where they can compete with the tiny transistors on silicon chips.
Mr Shoulders thinks he can use simple vacuum micro-electronic components to compress electric charge in such a way that hundreds of billions of electrons can be packed into spheres one millionth of a metre across. That should not be possible. Particles with the same charge are meant to repel each other. It normally takes a great deal of force to persuade negatively charged electrons to cluster together against their natural urges. Powerful magnetic fields can do the trick. But it takes relatively large and heavy equipment to generate the fields.
Mr Shoulder’s compression devices are, he says, simple and economical. His tiny nuggets of pure charge, as dense as a solid, zip around at one-tenth the speed of light. For Mr Shoulders, the patterns of tiny bullet holes that are sometimes produced when electrons are fired at various materials are marks of the impacts of charge-clusters (or EVs, as he also calls them). He thinks that EVs are in fact quite common–notably in the form of lightning, which he considers to be made of them.
How might charge clusters overcome the forces of repulsion? One theory (which Mr Shoulders himself is not wholly convinced by) has been proposed by Jupiter’s resident theoretician, Dr Harold Puthoff. Dr Puthoff used to teach at Stanford University and work at SRI, spending a little of his time on extra-sensory perception but most of it on pastimes that are more usual for a physicist. He is the co-author of a widely used standard text on lasers. He thinks that the secret might lie in the Casimir effect.
The Casimir effect depends on a paradoxical finding of quantum physics: that empty space is full of energy, in a form that cannot be used or even–under normal circumstances–observed. This vacuum energy exerts a certain pressure on all matter. Since the pressure is normally the same in all directions, it tends not to be noticed. However, when two metl plates are placed a few millionths of a metre apart, they can shield each other from the pressure, at least to a degree. That means that the pressure is greater on the outside surfaces of the plates than on their inward, facing surfaces, with the result that the plates get pushed together. The force on the plates gets greater the closer they come. That is the Casimir effect.
Dr Puthoff is much taken by vacuum energy. He has suggested that a variant of the Casimir effect may be familiar to everybody as the force of gravity. On a less cosmic scale, he suggests that the electrons in a ball of condensed charge may be acting like Casimir plates, shielding each other from the vacuum pressure. The vacuum pressure would squeeze electrons into an EV ball, which would be stopped from collapsing altogether by their natural repulsion.
Dr Puthoff’s explanation has some plausibility, but–as he realises–would need much more detail to become enticing. However, leaving aside the whys of the EVs’ existence, the hows of their use would certainly be interesting. An electronic device that was based not on the movement of individual electrons (as today’s devices are) but on the flow of dense packets of charge should be far faster and more efficient. The EVs would not need to travel along wires; they would simply follow grooves etched in insulating materials. Circuits and other basic electronic devices should therefore be relatively easy to make, according to Mr Shoulders. The grooves would be as straightforward to fashion as those etched in today’s compact discs.
Jupiter Technologies has a wish-list of applications for EVs. They include medical X-ray machines the size of a pencil (a company called CBI Labs in Schenectady, New York says it has already made an X-ray device using EV technology), flat-panel high-definition television displays and all sorts of high-speed communications devices and computers. One reason that military agencies seem especially interested is that electronic devices using EVs should withstand the debilitating electromagnetic pulses created by nuclear weapons.
The company, which was founded in 1974 by Mr William Church (of Church’s Fried Chicken), a rich and retiring amateur scientist and chess enthusiast, does not want to manufacture anything. It wants to license the ideas that it is trying to parent. Will it find any takers? If this month’s investigation goes well, Jupiter will probably have to fight back the applicants, and Mr Shoulders will one day be as famous as the inventor of the transistor. If it flops, EVs could end up as merely the strangest twist in the history of the fried chicken business.