But in 1973, in the grip of America’s first oil crisis, getting your car filled up with gas depended upon two things: the day of the week and the last number of your license plate. Those whose plates ended in an odd number were allowed to fill up on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays; even numbers on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with Sunday a gas-free day of rest.
Bill had an odd number and the day was Tuesday. That meant that no matter where he had to go, no matter how important his meetings, he was stuck at home, held hostage by a few Middle Eastern potentates and OPEC. Even if his license plate number matched the day of the week, it still could take up to two hours waiting in lines that zigzagged around corners many blocks away.
That is, if he could find a gas station
that was still open.
Businesses were asked to halve the lighting in work areas and to turn down lights in halls and storage areas. Washington would set the example by keeping the national Christmas tree on the White House front lawn turned off. The nation, fat and complacent, used to consuming energy like so many cheeseburgers, was in shock, forced, for the first time, to go on a diet. There was talk of rationing books being printed.
Five years later Jimmy Carter would term
it the ‘moral equivalent of war’, and it felt that way to most
middle-aged Americans, who hadn’t had to ration gas since the Second
Hal, a laser physicist, often acted as Bill’s scientific alter-ego.
Hal agreed that it was time to start looking for some alternatives to fossil fuel to drive transportation - something besides coal, wood or nuclear power.
Hal ticked off a litany of current possibilities.
There was photovoltaics (using solar
cells), or fuel cells, or water batteries (an attempt to convert the
hydrogen from water into electricity in the cell). There was wind,
or waste products, or even methane. But none of these, even the more
exotic among them, were turning out to be robust or realistic.
Hal was largely self-made and had put himself through school after his father died when he was in his early teens. He’d graduated from the University of Florida in 1958, the year after Sputnik 1 went up, but he’d come of age during the Kennedy administration.
Like many young men of his generation, he’d taken to heart Kennedy’s central metaphor of the US embarking on a new frontier. Through the years and even after the space program had fallen away due to lack of interest as well as lack of funding, Hal would retain a humble idealism about his work and the central role science played in the future of mankind.
Hal firmly believed that science drove civilization. He was a small, sturdy man with a passing resemblance to Mickey Rooney and a sweep of thick chestnut hair, whose seething inner life of lateral thought and what-if possibility hid behind a phlegmatic and unassuming exterior.
At first glance, he hardly looked the
part of the frontier scientist. Nevertheless, it was Hal’s sincere
view that frontier work was vital for the future of the planet, to
provide inspiration for teaching and for economic growth. He also
liked getting out of the laboratory, trying to apply physics to
solutions in real life.
He’d spent 10 years at it and recently he’d taken Church’s to the market. He’d made his money and now he was in the mood to return to his youthful aspirations - but with no education, he’d had to do it by proxy.
In Hal he’d found his perfect counterpart - a gifted physicist willing to pursue areas that ordinary scientists might dismiss out of hand.
In September 1982, Bill would present Hal with a gold watch to mark their collaboration:
The idea was that Hal was the quiet innovator, tenacious and cool as a glacier, with Bill as ‘Snow’, throwing new challenges at him like a constant barrage of fine new powder.
Every quantum physicist, he explained, is well aware of the Zero Point Field.
Quantum mechanics had demonstrated that
there is no such thing as a vacuum, or nothingness. What we tend to
think of as a sheer void if all of space were emptied of matter and
energy and you examined even the space between the stars is, in
subatomic terms, a hive of activity.
Largely because of Einstein’s theories and his famous equation E = mc2, relating energy to mass, all elementary particles interact with each other by exchanging energy through other quantum particles, which are believed to appear out of nowhere, combining and annihilating each other in less than an instant - 10-23 seconds, to be exact - causing random fluctuations of energy without any apparent cause.
particles generated during this brief moment are known as ‘virtual
particles’. They differ from real particles because they only exist
during that exchange - the time of ‘uncertainty’ allowed by the
uncertainty principle. Hal liked to think of this process as akin to
the spray given off from a thundering waterfall.1
Zero-point energy was the energy present in the emptiest state of space at the lowest possible energy, out of which no more energy could be removed - the closest that motion of subatomic matter ever gets to zero.2
But because of the uncertainty principle
there will always be some residual jiggling due to virtual particle
exchange. It had always been largely discounted because it is
ever-present. In physics equations, most physicists would subtract
troublesome zero-point energy away - a process called
‘renormalization’.3 Because zero-point energy was ever-present, the
theory went, it didn’t change anything. Because it didn’t change
anything, it didn’t count.4
Boyer had demonstrated that classical physics, allied with the existence of the ceaseless energy of the Zero Point Field, could explain many of the strange phenomena attributed to quantum theory.5 If Boyer were to be believed, it meant that you didn’t need two types of physics - the classical Newtonian kind and the quantum laws - to account for the properties of the universe.
You could explain everything that
happened in the quantum world with classical physics - so long as
you took account of the Zero Point Field.
The Zero Point Field might just represent some vast unharnessed energy source.
Bill loved the idea and offered to fund some exploratory research.
It wasn’t as though he hadn’t funded crazier schemes of Hal’s before. In a sense the timing was right for Hal. At 36, he was at a bit of a loose end. His first marriage had broken up, he’d just finished co-authoring what had become an important textbook on quantum electronics.
He’d got his PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford just five years before, and had made his mark in lasers. When academia had proved tedious to him, he’d moved on, and was presently a laser researcher at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a gigantic farmers’ market of a research site, at the time affiliated with Stanford University.
SRI stood like its own vast university of interlocking rectangles, squares and Zs of three-storey red-brick buildings hidden in a sleepy little corner of Menlo Park, sandwiched between St Patrick’s seminary and the city of Spanish-tiled roofs representing Stanford University itself.
At the time, SRI was the second largest
think-tank in the world, where anyone could study virtually anything
so long as they were able to get the funding for it.
Even though these were early days, he knew he’d stumbled onto something of major significance for physics. This was an incredible breakthrough, possibly even a way to apply quantum physics to the world on a large scale, or perhaps it was a new science altogether. This was beyond lasers or anything else he had ever done. This felt, in its own modest way, a little like being Einstein and discovering relativity.
Eventually, he realized just what it was
that he had: he was on the verge of the discovery that the ‘new‘
physics of the subatomic world might be wrong - or at least require
some drastic revision.
According to Heisenberg, who developed the uncertainty principle in 1927, it is impossible to know all the properties of a particle, such as its position and its momentum, at the same time because of what seem to be fluctuations inherent in nature. The energy level of any known particle can’t be pinpointed because it is always changing.
Part of this principle also stipulates that no subatomic particle can be brought completely to rest, but will always possess a tiny residual movement. Scientists have long known that these fluctuations account for the random noise of microwave receivers or electronic circuits, limiting the level to which signals can be amplified.
Even fluorescent strip lighting relies
on vacuum fluctuations to operate.
Then, in the middle of the nineteenth
century, scientist Michael Faraday introduced the concept of a field
in relation to electricity and magnetism, believing that the most
important aspect of energy was not the source but the space around
it, and the influence of one on the other through some force.7 In
his view, atoms weren’t hard little billiard balls, but the most
concentrated center of a force that would extend out in space.
An electromagnetic field, to use but one example, is simply an electrical field and a magnetic field which intersect, sending out waves of energy at the speed of light. An electric and magnetic field forms around any electric charge (which is, most simply, a surplus or deficit of electrons). Both electrical and magnetic fields have two polarities (negative and positive) and both will cause any other charged object to be attracted or repelled, depending on whether the charges are opposite (one positive, the other negative) or the same (both positive or both negative).
The field is considered that area of
space where this charge and its effects can be detected.
Simply put, a field is a region of influence.
As one pair of researchers aptly described it:
James Clerk Maxwell first proposed that space was an ether of electromagnetic light, and this idea held sway until decisively disproved by a Polish-born physicist named Albert Michelson in 1881 (and six years later in collaboration with an American chemistry professor called Edward Morley) with a light experiment that showed that matter did not exist in a mass of ether.9
Einstein himself believed space
constituted a true void until his own ideas, eventually developed
into his general theory of relativity, showed that space indeed held
a plenum of activity. But it wasn’t until 1911, with an experiment
by Max Planck, one of the founding fathers of quantum theory, that
physicists understood that empty space was bursting with activity.
According to quantum field theory, the
individual entity is transient and insubstantial. Particles cannot
be separated from the empty space around them. Einstein himself
recognized that matter itself was ‘extremely intense’ - a
disturbance, in a sense, of perfect randomness - and that the only
fundamental reality was the underlying entity - the field itself.10
This sort of emission and re-absorption of virtual particles occurs not only among photons and electrons, but with all the quantum particles in the universe. The Zero Point Field is a repository of all fields and all ground energy states and all virtual particles - a field of fields. Every exchange of every virtual particle radiates energy.
The zero-point energy in any one
particular transaction in an electromagnetic field is unimaginably
tiny - half a photon’s worth.
It has been calculated that the total energy of the Zero Point Field exceeds all energy in matter by a factor of 1040, or 1 followed by 40 zeros.11
As the great physicist Richard Feynman
once described, in attempting to give some idea of this magnitude,
the energy in a single cubic meter of space is enough to boil all
the oceans of the world.12
The Field might just offer a scientific explanation for many metaphysical notions, such as the Chinese belief in the life force, or qi, described in ancient texts as something akin to an energy field. It even echoed the Old Testament’s account of God’s first dictum:
Hal was eventually to demonstrate in a paper published by Physical Review, one of world’s most prestigious physics journals, that the stable state of matter depends for its very existence on this dynamic interchange of subatomic particles with the sustaining zero-point energy field.14
In quantum theory, a constant problem wrestled with by physicists concerns the issue of why atoms are stable.
Invariably, this question would be examined in the laboratory or mathematically tackled using the hydrogen atom. With one electron and one proton, hydrogen is the simplest atom in the universe to dissect. Quantum scientists struggled with the question of why an electron orbits around a proton, like a planet orbiting around the sun. In the solar system, gravity accounts for the stable orbit.
But in the atomic world, any moving
electron, which carries a charge, wouldn’t be stable like an
orbiting planet, but would eventually radiate away, or exhaust, its
energy and then spiral into the nucleus, causing the entire atomic
structure of the object to collapse.
Bohr’s explanation was that an electron radiates only when it jumps from one orbit to another and that orbits have to have the proper difference in energy to account for any emission of photon light.
Bohr made up his own law, which said, in effect,
This dictum and its assumptions led to further assumptions about matter and energy having both wave- and particle-like characteristics, which kept electrons in their place and in particular orbits, and ultimately to the development of quantum mechanics.
Mathematically at least, there is no
doubt that Bohr was correct in predicting this difference in energy
Electrons get their energy to keep going
without slowing down because they are refueling by tapping into
these fluctuations of empty space. In other words, the Zero Point
Field accounts for the stability of the hydrogen atom - and, by
inference, the stability of all matter. Pull the plug on zero-point
energy, Hal demonstrated, and all atomic structure would collapse.17
As he wrote in one paper, the ZPF
interaction constitutes an underlying, stable ‘bottom rung’ vacuum
state in which further ZPF interaction simply reproduces the
existing state on a dynamic-equilibrium basis.20
The amplitude of the wave is half the height of the curve from peak to trough, and a single wavelength, or cycle, is one complete oscillation, or the distance between, say, two adjacent peaks or two adjacent troughs.
The frequency is the number of cycles in
one second, usually measured in hertz, where 1 hertz equals one
cycle per second. In the US, our electricity is delivered at a
frequency of 60 hertz or cycles per second; in the UK, it is 50
hertz. Cell phones operate on 900 or 1800 megahertz.
Two waves are said to be in phase when
they are both, in effect, peaking or troughing at the same time,
even if they have different frequencies or amplitudes. Getting ‘in
phase’ is getting in synch.
If one is peaking when the other is troughing, they tend to cancel each other out - a process called ‘destructive interference’.
Once they’ve collided, each wave
contains information, in the form of energy coding, about the other,
including all the other information it contains. Interference
patterns amount to a constant accumulation of information, and waves
have a virtually infinite capacity for storage.
As the harbinger and imprinter of all
wavelengths and all frequencies, the Zero Point Field is a kind of
shadow of the universe for all time, a mirror image and record of
everything that ever was. In a sense, the vacuum is the beginning
and the end of everything in the universe.23
One such disturbance caused by the Zero
Point Field is
the Lamb shift, named after American physicist
Willis Lamb and developed during the 1940s using wartime radar,
which shows that zero-point fluctuations cause electrons to move a
bit in their orbits, leading to shifts in frequency of about 1000
This is because when two plates are placed near each other, the zero-point waves between the plates are restricted to those that essentially span the gap. Since some wavelengths of the field are excluded, this leads to a disturbance in the equilibrium of the field and the result is an imbalance of energy, with less energy in the gap between the plates than in the outside empty space.
This greater energy density pushes the
two metal plates together.
Spontaneous emission, when atoms decay
and emit radiation for no known reason, has also been shown to be a
Zero Point Field effect.
Uncertainty, wave-particle duality, the
fluctuating motion of particles: all had to do with the interaction
of matter and the Zero Point Field. Hal even began to wonder whether
it could account for what remains that most mysterious and vexatious
of forces: gravity.
Over the years, many physicists, including Einstein, have tried to assign it an electromagnetic nature, to define it as a nuclear force, or even to give it its own set of quantum rules - all without success.
Then, in 1968, the noted Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov turned the usual assumption on its head.
What if gravity weren’t an interaction
between objects, but just a residual effect? More to the point, what
if gravity were an after-effect of the Zero Point Field, caused by
alterations in the field due to the presence of matter? 25
One of the rules of electrodynamics is
that a fluctuating charged particle will emit an electromagnetic
radiation field. This means that besides the primary Zero Point
Field itself, a sea of these secondary fields exists. Between two
particles, these secondary fields cause an attractive source, which
Sakharov believed had something to do with gravity.26
A particle in the Zero Point Field
begins jiggling due to its interaction with the Zero Point Field;
two particles not only have their own jiggle, but also get
influenced by the field generated by other particles, all doing
their own jiggling. Therefore, the fields generated by these
particles - which represent a partial shielding of the all-pervasive
ground state Zero Point Field - cause the attraction that we think
of as gravity.
He demonstrated that gravitational effects were entirely consistent with zero-point particle motion, what the Germans had dubbed ‘zitterbewegung’ or ‘trembling motion’.29
Tying gravity in with zero-point energy solved a number of conundrums that had confounded physicists for many centuries. It answered, for instance, the question of why gravity is weak and why it can’t be shielded (the Zero Point Field, which is ever-present, can’t be completely shielded itself). It also explained why we can have positive mass and not negative mass.
Finally, it brought gravity together
with the other forces of physics, such as nuclear energy and
electromagnetism, into one cogent unified theory - something
physicists had always been eager to do but had always singularly
With Hal’s theory, a particle is always a particle but its state just seems indeterminate because it is constantly interacting with this background energy field.
Another quality of subatomic particles such as electrons taken as a given in quantum theory is ‘nonlocality’ - Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance’. This quality may also be accounted for by the Zero Point Field. To Hal, it was analogous to two sticks planted in the sand at the edge of the ocean about to be hit by a rolling wave.
If you didn’t know about the wave, and both sticks fell down because of it one after the other, you might think one stick had affected the other at a distance and call that a non-local effect. But what if it were zero-point fluctuation that was the underlying mechanism acting on quantum entities and causing one entity to affect the other?30
If that were true, it meant every part
of the universe could be in touch with every other part
Ordinarily, electrons repel each other
and don’t like to be pushed too closely together. However, you can
tightly cluster electronic charge if you calculate in the Zero Point
Field, which at some point will begin to push electrons together
like a tiny Casimir force. This enables you to develop electronics
applications in very tiny spaces.
Eventually they would invent a special device that could fit an X-ray device at the end of a hypodermic needle, enabling medics to take pictures of body parts in tiny crevices, and then a high-frequency signal generator radar device that would allow radar to be generated from a source no larger than a plastic credit card. They would also be among the first to design a flat-panel television, the width of a hanging picture.
All their patents were accepted with the explanation that the ultimate source of energy,
Hal and Ken’s discoveries were given an unexpected boost when the Pentagon, which rates new technologies in order of importance to the nation, listed condensed-charge technology, as zero-point energy research was then termed, as number 3 on the National Critical Issue List, only after stealth bombers and optical computing.
A year later, condensed-charge technology would move into the number two slot.
The Interagency Technological
Assessment Group was convinced that Hal was onto something
important to the national interest and that aerospace could develop
further only if energy could be extracted from the vacuum.
Hal decided to set up his own company to develop the X-ray device. He got halfway along that route before it occurred to him that he was about to take an unwelcome detour. It might make him a lot of money, but he was only interested in the project for the money he could use to fund his energy research.
Setting up and running this company would take at least 10 years out of his life, he figured, much as Bill’s family business had consumed a decade of his. Far better, he thought, simply to look for funding for the energy research itself. Hal made the decision then and there. He would keep his eye firmly on the altruistic goal he’d started with - and would eventually bet his entire career on it.
First service, then glory and last, if
at all, remuneration.
An astrophysicist at Lock-heed, Bernie was looking forward to spending the rest of his summer doing research on the X-ray emission of stars and considered himself lucky to have landed the opportunity.
Bernie was an odd hybrid, a formal and
cautious manner belying a private expressiveness which found its
outlet in writing folk songs. But in the laboratory he was as little
given to hyperbole as his friend Alfonso Rueda, a noted
physicist and applied mathematician at the California State
University in Long Beach, who’d left the message.
To a physicist, this announcement was analogous to claiming to have worked out a mathematical equation to prove God.
In this case, God was Newton and F = ma the First Commandment.
F = ma was a central tenet in physics, postulated by Newton in his Principia, the Holy Bible of classical physics, in 1687, as the fundamental equation of motion.
It was so central to physical theory that it was a given, a postulate, not something provable, but simply assumed to be true, and never argued with. Force equals mass (or inertia) times acceleration. Or, the acceleration you get is inversely proportional to mass for any given force. Inertia - the tendency of objects to stay put and be hard to get moving, and then once moving, hard to stop - fights your ability to increase the speed of an object.
The bigger the object, the more force is
needed to get it moving. The amount of effort it takes to send a
flea flying across a tennis court will not begin to shift a
He would mail details to Bernie in
The pair had found that if you move at a
constant speed through the vacuum, it all looks the same. But as
soon as you start to accelerate, the vacuum begins to appear like a
lukewarm sea of heat radiation from your perspective as you move.
Although Bernie had his own technical
expertise, he needed a high-level mathematician to do the
calculations. He’d been intrigued by Hal’s work on gravity and
considered that there might be a connection between inertia and the
Zero Point Field.
If Alfonso was right, one of the
fundamental axioms of the world had been reduced to something you
could derive from electrodynamics. You didn’t have to assume
anything. You could prove that Newton was right simply by taking
account of the Zero Point Field.
The paper demonstrated that the property
of inertia possessed by all objects in the physical universe was
simply resistance to being accelerated through the Zero Point Field.
In their paper they showed that inertia is what is termed a Lorentz
force - a force that slows particles moving through a magnetic
field. In this instance, the magnetic field is a component of the
Zero Point Field, reacting with the charged subatomic particles. The
larger the object, the more particles it contains and the more it is
held stationary by the field.
Mass, in their eyes, was a ‘bookkeeping’
device, a ‘temporary place holder’ for a more general quantum vacuum
The equation has always implied that energy (one distinct physical entity in the universe) turns into mass (another distinct physical entity). They now saw that the relationship of mass to energy was more a statement about the energy of quarks and electrons in what we call matter caused by interaction with the Zero Point Field fluctuations.
What they were all getting at, in the mild-mannered, neutral language of physics, was that matter is not a fundamental property of physics. The Einstein equation was simply a recipe for the amount of energy necessary to create the appearance of mass. It means that there aren’t two fundamental physical entities - something material and another immaterial - but only one: energy.
Everything in your world, anything you hold in your hand, no matter how dense, how heavy, how large, on its most fundamental level boils down to a collection of electric charges interacting with a background sea of electromagnetic and other energetic fields - a kind of electromagnetic drag force. As they would write later, mass was not equivalent to energy; mass was energy.36
Or, even more fundamentally, there is no
mass. There is only charge.
As Clarke wrote, in justifying his immortalization of their theory:
The question HR & P asked is:
Their provisional answer depends on the
astonishing and - outside the physicists’ ivory towers -
little-known fact that so-called empty space is actually a cauldron
of seething energies - the Zero Point Field... HR&P suggest that
both inertia and gravitation are electromagnetic phenomena resulting
from interaction with this field.
However, if HR&P’s theory can be proved, it opens up the prospect - however remote - of anti-gravity ‘space drives’ and the even more fantastic possibility of controlling inertia. This could lead to some interesting situations: if you gave someone the gentlest touch, they would promptly disappear at thousands of kilometers an hour, until they bounced off the other side of the room a fraction of a millisecond later.
The good news is that traffic accidents
would be virtually impossible: automobiles - and passengers - could
collide harmlessly at any speed.39
Later, Haisch, Rueda and Daniel Cole of
IBM would publish a paper showing that the universe owes its very
structure to the Zero Point Field. In their view, the vacuum causes
particles to accelerate, which in turn causes them to agglutinate
into concentrated energy, or what we call matter.41
They had proved one of the most fundamental laws of the universe, and found an explanation for one of its greatest mysteries. The Zero Point Field had been established as the basis of a number of fundamental physical phenomena.
Bernie Haisch, with his NASA
background, had his sights firmly on the possibilities open to space
travel of having inertia, mass and gravity all tied to this
background sea of energy. Both he and Hal received funding to
develop an energy source extracted from the vacuum, in Bernie’s case
from a NASA eager to advance space travel.
The other idea was to manipulate the waves of the Zero Point Field, so that they would act like a unilateral force, pushing your vehicle along. Bernie imagined that at some point in the future, you might be able to just set your zero-point transducer (wave transformer) and go.
But perhaps even more exotic, if you could modify or turn off inertia you might be able to set off a rocket with very low energy, but just modify the forces that stop it from moving. Or use a very fast rocket, but modify the inertia of the astronauts so that they wouldn’t be flattened by G forces. And if you could somehow turn off gravity, you could change the weight of the rocket or the force required to accelerate it.44
The possibilities were endless.
To the physicist in him, who always needed to take a given situation apart and examine the pieces, as he had in his youth with ham radios, what was being described appeared to be a relativistic phenomenon. Levitation is categorized as psychokinesis, the ability of humans to make objects (or themselves) move in the absence of any known force.
The recorded instances of levitation that Hal had stumbled across only seemed possible in a physics sense if gravity had somehow been manipulated. If these vacuum fluctuations, considered so meaningless by most quantum physicists, did amount to something that could be harnessed at will, whether for automobile fuel or to move objects just by focusing one’s attention on them, then the implications not only for fuel but for every aspect of our lives were enormous.
It might be the closest we have to what
in Star Wars was called ‘The Force’.
If matter wasn’t stable, but an essential element in an underlying ambient, random sea of energy, he thought, then it should be possible to use this as a blank matrix on which coherent patterns could be written, particularly as the Zero Point Field had imprinted everything that ever happened in the world through wave interference encoding.
This kind of information might account for coherent particle and field structures.
But there might also be an ascending ladder of other possible information structures, perhaps coherent fields around living organisms, or maybe this acts as a non-biochemical ‘memory‘ in the universe. It might even be possible to organize these fluctuations somehow through an act of will.45
As Clarke had written,
Hal, like Bernie, was first and last a physicist who didn’t let his mind run away with itself, but when he did allow himself a few moments of speculation, he realized that this represented nothing less than a unifying concept of the universe, which showed that everything was in some sort of connection and balance with the rest of the cosmos.
The universe’s very currency might be learned information, as imprinted upon this fluid, mutable field of information. The Field demonstrated that the real currency of the universe - the very reason for its stability - is an exchange of energy. If we were all connected through The Field, then it just might be possible to tap into this vast reservoir of energy information and extract information from it.
With such a vast energy bank to be harnessed, virtually anything was possible - that is, if human beings had some sort of quantum structure allowing them access to it.
But there was the stumbling block.
That would require that our bodies
operated according to the laws of the quantum world.