Doing It Wrong

In Pseudoscience by Brian Koberlein8 Comments

Science isn’t easy. It isn’t supposed to be. The process of open publication, peer review and clear data are a part of science because they help us understand how the Universe works. It can be inconvenient and contentious, but it works. Through this process, new ideas are faced with an uphill battle. This is particularly true of ideas that would contradict the foundational theories of physics. So it’s tempting to react to such opposition by playing a different game. Rather than addressing criticism, you start building a story where your idea is obviously right, and others are simply too closed-minded to see it. Down that path lies pseudoscience, and sometimes you can watch it happening. Take for example, Mike McCulloch‘s theory of Modified inertia by a Hubble-scale Casimir effect (MiHsC), also known as quantized inertia.

McCulloch’s model has been in the works since 2008, but it has become popular in recent years due to its connection to the EMDrive. You might recall this as the device that (according to its proponents) can create a thrust without any traditional propellant which could revolutionize space travel and take us to the stars. The EMDrive has created quite a stir among the general public because of the tremendous possibilities if it succeeds. Meanwhile, scientists have noted that even the best experimental results can’t be distinguished from background noise, and that such a device would violate basic physics. McCulloch argued that the effect was not only real, but that it could be explained in the context of his model.

The basic idea of MiHsC is that inertia is caused by Unruh radiation. Inertia is a basic property of matter, and means that the velocity of an object will remain constant unless a force acts on it. It is the basis of Newton’s first law of motion. Unruh radiation has never been observed, but it appears in quantum physics. In quantum theory, empty space can be described as being filled with a quantum field. A vacuum, in this view, is simply the lowest possible energy state for these fields. In most cases empty space looks like a vacuum as we’d expect, but for an accelerating observer the field has an observed energy. As a result, an accelerating observer would be heated by quantum particles known as Unruh radiation. McCulloch argues that when an object accelerates it interacts with Unruh radiation, which causes the object to resist a change of motion. Thus inertia is an effect of acceleration rather than an inherent property of matter.

There are problems with this idea from the get-go. For one thing, the Unruh effect in standard quantum theory is extraordinarily small. If you accelerated a trillion times greater than Earth gravity, you’d only see a thermal temperature of 40 billionths of a degree above absolute zero. Furthermore, since Unruh radiation comes from all directions, it couldn’t create the effects of inertia on its own. But rather than be deterred by this, McCulloch adds other effects into the mix. Since the observable universe is finite, the wavelengths of Unruh radiation is limited, and combined with a cosmic Casimir effect and a bit of information theory, can somehow produce the effect of inertia. The Unruh effect, Casimir effect and information theory are all well established in modern physics, but their hodge-podge combination in MiHsC is misapplied.

Credit: EM Drive prototype by NASA/Eagleworks, via NASA Spaceflight Forum.

However even this isn’t enough to explain the EMDrive. In his paper on the EMDrive, McCulloch argued that photons have mass, and that photon mass varies with time. The time-varying inertia allows the EMDrive accelerate. The idea not only violates Newton’s third law of motion, it violates special relativity, general relativity and Noether’s theorem. Since these are each well tested theories that form the basis of countless other theories, their violation would completely overturn all of modern physics. It’s no wonder most scientists have been aggressively skeptical of the idea. This criticism could be overcome by working out the specific details of  MiHsC, clearly addressing these kinds of problems. But that would be extremely difficult given just how strongly verified these theories are. The alternative is to double down, count the EMDrive as a win, and start looking at other strange effects to explain. Because once you allow yourself to ignore basic physics in your theory, all sorts of phenomena can be explained.

McCulloch’s model vs MoND and Newton for some dwarf galaxies. Credit: M.E. McCulloch.

In his most recent work, McCullogh claims MiHsC can explain the odd behavior of rotating galaxies. It’s long been known that galaxies rotate faster than expected. Given the amount of mass we can directly see in a galaxy, most of them should simply fly apart. The most popular solution to this conundrum is that galaxies contain dark matter, but other ideas such as Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MoND) have been proposed. Like MoND, MiHsC proposes that the inertia of an object is less at small accelerations, so the weak gravity of a galaxy can keep stars from flying away. Starting with an equation for modified inertial mass, the paper derives the predicted rotation speeds for several dwarf galaxies. It then compares observed rotation speeds with the predictions of Newtonian gravity (without dark matter), MoND, and MiHsC. Newtonian gravity fails (as has long been known), and the other two models agree with the data equally well, though with uncertainties on the order of 30% calling the data a good fit is a bit generous. McCullogh then argues that MiHsC is inherently better than MoND, since MoND relies upon an adjustable parameter. Nevermind the fact that MiHsC violates established physics, while MoND is simply descriptive.

By itself this is pretty standard for a speculative paper: here’s a wild idea, it can kinda explain a strange physical effect, maybe it’s worth exploring further. It’s a kind of “what if” paper that could lead to interesting models, but doesn’t really prove anything. Sure, MiHsC roughly agrees with the galaxy rotation curves, but so do a dozen other speculative models.  But McCullogh claims on his blog that the model not only predicts galactic rotation curves without dark matter, it predicts cosmic expansion without dark energy, solves the Pioneer anomaly and the flyby anomaly, could be used to create free energy through sonoluminescence, etc. It’s everything we could ever wish for. These claims reiterated in the popular press without any critical analysis. As a result, the model has built up a fan following who think that skeptical scientists are just haters trying to bury the next Einstein.

But that’s not how science is done. To be a viable model MiHsC will have to address its contradictions with established theories, and that will prove extremely difficult. Claiming victory is easier, but it’s an approach that will only get you lost in the woods.

Paper: M.E. McCulloch. Low-acceleration dwarf galaxies as tests of quantised inertia. Astrophysics and Space Science (2017)

Paper: M.E. McCulloch. Testing quantised inertia on the emdrive. arXiv:1604.03449 [physics.gen-ph] (2016)

Paper: M. E. McCulloch. Modelling the Pioneer anomaly as modified inertia. MNRAS,376,338-342 (2007)


  1. Perhaps the article is yet incomplete as missing is the rationale of falsification of Mc’s theory? What is the particular reason his controverse but intriguing almost correct calculations should be seen invalid?

  2. > scientists have noted that even the best [EM Drive] experimental results can’t be distinguished from background noise,

    Thank you for taking time to address this. I, for one, value your time, and commend the effort you put forth daily to make this blog useful to me and my family.

  3. “Because once you allow yourself to ignore basic physics in your theory, all sorts of phenomena can be explained.” That line is gold

  4. Brian, have you questioned any of his specific analyses and claims on his website? I have, and he didn’t respond…..

  5. Hi Brian. What exactly are these “dozen other speculative models” which explain the galaxy rotation curves? Do you have 12 publications or links to them? Also when you mention that the EmDrive results can’t be distinguished from background noise, the link you supply never states anything like that. There is one passing statement saying people might try to find other unaccounted for effects, but as far as I know these explanations have not been concretely established. Can you supply any information which statistically shows the measurements were within measurement noise? I would have thought the peer review may have caught that. Finally, if you find this kind of paper is science done wrong, then what have been your feelings about the massive amounts of time and money spent on String Theory? Is String Theory science done correctly?

    1. Author

      MOND, STVG, NGT, MSTG, emergent gravity, plasma cosmology, electric universe models, etc. Just google “alternatives to dark matter” and take your pick.

      The peer reviewed paper on the EM Drive admits the results are not conclusive. I wrote a somewhat positive review of the work, but others have been much less kind. It’s clear that even this peer reviewed article doesn’t demonstrate the effect conclusively.

      Some work on string theory is valid. As a mathematical tool it can be quite useful. However folks who go around saying quantum objects ARE strings, or that it’s the only valid theory for physics are straying away from science.

  6. Thanks for this article. It is nice to have some enlightened vision regarding all this. I am not an astrophysicist nor a quantum theory guru, just some guy who loves science and the universe. I stumble upon Mc Culloch blog and it is sure quite thrilling to read some of his articles. Yet a lot of terms that the majority of readers can’t understand properly are thrown: Quantum vaccum, Unruh radiation, Quantised inertia, Casimir effect etc… I then started to read the arxiv papers regarding galaxy rotations. A lot of papers have been published and they deal with known anomalies that one can encounter on the web (sling shots anomalies etc…). So it is easy to be convinced that this guy may have something…

    So I just want to thank you to have taken the time to write your article. When I typed “quantised inertia” on google I only find your article as a counter to all the articles of McCulloch.

    I don’t say McCulloch is wrong or you are (yet my opinion is now largely in favor of one of both of you) because I am not fitted enough regarding these domains to say so. Yet I love the fact that this article reminds to be cautious. We should not blindly believe big announcements with weird words we don’t understand (especially when there are words with “quant” as a radical), otherwise it’s a kind of fanatic enrollment which is really far from what I try to find out: how things works and what can we do with them.
    Moreover I still have some hopes for the EmDrive. But “quantised inertia” seems not the right theory to explain how this device “may” work. And yet I am still waiting for more obvious evidence that it does really work. Hoping that the X37-B and Tiangong experiments will bring more light in the future about this.

    So thanks again and keep up the good work. I am happy to have discovered your blog which seems really interesting in many ways.
    Best regards

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