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The Philadelphia Experiment

12 August 2010
This morning I visited Wikipedia, typed the date, 12 August, into the search box, and looked for events that I could write about for Physics Today's Facebook page. Today happens to be Erwin Schrödinger's birthday, so I picked him.

This morning I visited Wikipedia, typed the date, 12 August, into the search box, and looked for events that I could write about for Physics Today's Facebook page. Today happens to be Erwin Schrödinger's birthday, so I picked him.

It's also the 67th anniversary of the Philadelphia Experiment. According to conspiracy theorists, in 1943 the US Navy tested a device at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard that rendered the USS Eldridge, a 1240-ton destroyer, completely invisible.

Like all good conspiracy yarns, the Philadelphia Experiment features real people, among them the philosopher Bertrand Russell and an SS-Obergruppenführer called Hans Kammler, who supposedly led a rival Nazi project. But what I wasn't expecting was the key role played by Albert Einstein's unified field theory.

In 1950, five years before the Philadelphia Experiment was "uncovered," Einstein wrote an article for Scientific American about his attempts to unify the forces of nature in one grand unified theory. Devising such a theory eluded Einstein—and it continues to elude his successors—but if the theory were found, it could more or less plausibly describe the means to locally distort spacetime in such a way that the paths of photons would be bent around a massive object—for example, a warship.

It's quixotic in the extreme to base a conspiracy, which purports to be real, on a solution to what is perhaps the most challenging problem in all of science. A less ambitious theoretical goal would have made for a stronger, more convincing foundation for conspirators.

Science fiction writers, on the other hand, are free to appropriate any theory for their work. Wormholes, tachyons, Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and other as-yet-unproven concoctions have made their way into science fiction. And their presence, paradoxically, makes the stories seem more real.

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