Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
New Scientist reports on a study from Germany that “cheats” this principle.
Now Ulf Peschel at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and his colleagues have made a diametric drive using “effective mass”. As photons travel at the speed of light they have no rest mass. But if you shine pulses of light into some layered materials, such as crystals, some of the photons can be reflected backwards by one layer and then reflected forwards again by another. That delays part of the pulse, causing it to interfere with the rest of the pulse as it propagates more slowly through the material.
According to Newton’s third law of motion, when one billiard ball strikes another, the two balls should bounce away from each other. But if one of the billiard balls had a negative mass, then when the two balls collide they will accelerate in the same direction. This effect could be useful in a diametric drive, a speculative “engine” in which negative and positive mass interact to accelerate forever. NASA explored using the effect in the 1990s in a bid to make a diametric drive for better spacecraft propulsion. But there was a very big fly in the ointment: quantum mechanics states that matter cannot have a negative mass. Even antimatter, made of particles with the opposite charge and spin to their normal matter counterparts, has positive mass.
“Writing a negative mass in quantum field theory doesn’t make any difference,” says Archil Kobakhidze at the University of Sydney, Australia. The equations involve terms that are always squares of mass, so any negative mass will become positive anyway. “It has no observable meaning.”