Last week, a team of researchers tested Guido Fetta’s Cannae drive—a quantum thruster technology that does not require onboard propellant—and found that it appears to work. (The jury’s still out on what, if anything, this means.) The science behind the drive is still a little unclear, but the thing most often said about the Cannae drive—by both fans and critics—is that it violates the laws of physics, and specifically the law of conservation of momentum.
That's a strange way to describe scientific progress.
When we discover principles that change our understanding of other scientific disciplines, media narratives don’t generally suggest that their validity is in any way endangered by the discovery; when scientists discover a species that consumes electricity as food or lives somewhere we don’t expect it to live, most mainstream coverage indicates that we’re broadening our understanding of biology, making it stronger rather than weaker. Physics is the only discipline of science I’m aware of that always seems to be described by the press as if it were constantly on the verge of embarrassment—one discovery away from completely losing its credibility and starting over from scratch.
Part of this is a simple matter of vocabulary. In English, people who talk about “laws” are most often talking about restrictions on their behavior imposed by the government. The idea that we can break restrictions on our behavior imposed by physicists—just as we can break restrictions imposed by governments—can be very liberating, provided that we don’t think too hard about it.
Because if we really think through what the laws of physics are, they have nothing to do with physicists restricting our behavior. They’re just observations from physicists who perform a large number of experiments in an attempt to come up with reliable predictions about the ways in which our very existence restricts our behavior, and then relay those predictions to the general public, giving us more control over the world around us. If physicists are wrong, we know less about the universe than we thought we did—not more—and while that may be an important lesson for us to learn, it’s not much different from the lessons we learn when chemists discover a new element, or zoologists discover a new species, or astronomers discover a new type of star.
It’s unlikely that the Cannae drive will fundamentally change our understanding of physics. But if it does, that’s good news for physicists; fundamental changes to our understanding of the universe tend to excite large elements of the research community, create more meaningful work in the field, and sometimes even lead to life-altering practical applications. It would be everything but a scandal, in other words. It’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed about. It might even be something to be proud of.