Saturday, 30 June 2018

Let's do the time-warp... (AGAIN?). Examining the 'Vegas Interstate Time Anomaly'

The past few days have seen a number of news reports regarding a 'time-warp' allegedly discovered by paranormal investigator Joshua P Warren on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Are we really looking at the 'Vegas Interstate Time Anomaly' or could there be a more rational explanation? 

I'm a bit late to the party on this one so I know by the time I publish this a few skeptics will have commented on it and Joshua has already responded to his critics in his podcast. Maybe I can add something else to the discourse. Maybe not...

I'm going to split my examination of this story into three parts. First, the story as it was published. Then we'll look at the equipment that Warren used which is central to his claim. Finally, we'll examine Joshua's ideas about science and what I believe are the fundamental mistakes he made in handling the situation.

The story

Joshua's claims were first reported by Las Vegas Fox affiliate, Fox5 KVVU-TV(1). The text version of the story begins:
"LAS VEGAS (FOX5) -A paranormal researcher said he's the first person to ever discover a time warp, and that he found it on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Joshua Warren has been measuring the rate of time all over Southern Nevada, and he said, last week he found that time had slowed down. 
He said he measured multiple places between Las Vegas and Area 51, but the only place he got a reading was in the desert just north of the city between I-15 and Route 93."
“The weird thing, the real holy grail here, was what we picked up with this brand-new piece of technology,” Warren said."
"The technology he’s referring to was the DT Meter, which stands for differential time rate meter. It was recently invented by a Silicon Valley engineer, Ron Heath. It's connected to a 100-foot cable with a sensor on the end that sends back a signal."

Above is the piece of equipment that Joshua is referring to, the DT or Differential Time meter which retails for $219 on Bay, it proudly proclaims that it will help owners detect UFOs in their vicinity (the promotional material cheekily suggests that for optimal results customers should buy two and place them at right-angles). The meter sends a signal from one end of the system to the other and then back. It measures the time it takes for the signal to complete its journey and then compares the expected time it takes for the signal to complete its journey to the actual time. If there is a difference between the expected time and the received time the monitor displays it.
“That signal is always supposed to travel at the same rate of time at any particular place. The only way that could change is if a black hole approached earth or something like that, which is never supposed to happen,” Warren said. “At this spot, on June 18 of 2018, I actually measured for the first and only time, time itself slowing down for 20 microseconds.”
The claim that the equipment would only display a variation in signal speed as the result of a black hole approaching Earth is something that is taken directly from the website which sells the DT meter. But Joshua doesn't go into the factors which can also cause a discrepancy.
"Warren said that should not happen, according to the laws of physics."
This claim interests me particularly as it simply isn't true. In fact, Warren himself refers to events in spacetime that can affect time. The reason an approaching black hole would affect time is a result of a phenomenon known as time dilation. It's an established facet of general relativity that proximity to gravitational sources can cause time to 'run slow'. This means that time would slower at the bottom of a tall tower rather than the top. As the cable is only 100 meters long and it seems Joshua placed it horizontally this wouldn't be a factor in this case though.

What is most interesting here though is Joshua is, in my opinion, focusing on the wrong aspect of his experiment. The device he is using doesn't actually measure time, it measures how long it takes for an electromagnetic signal to travel from one end of the system to the other. It's really measuring speed of the signal and cross-referencing it against the distance travelled. That could be splitting hairs a little I know, but bear with me.

 In the case of this device, the signal is travelling through a cable. It's pretty safe to assume that the speed of the signal doesn't change too much, probably remaining about 2c/3, but that doesn't necessarily mean that if we see a variation between expected travel time and measured travel time of the signal, spacetime itself has changed.

A quick recollection of the speed/distance/time triangle you were probably taught in your first year of high school science probably gives you an indication of the answer to this conundrum. What if it wasn't the speed of the signal that altered, but the distance the signal had to travel?

I think the abnormal reading that Joshua received in the desert that day was a result of the thermal expansion of the cable that is carrying the signal. The signal is confined to the cable. If the cable expands the signal obviously has to travel further. A warping of spacetime really isn't needed. The hot Nevada desert will do just fine.

The heat wouldn't just expand in one direction but in three, meaning that any change would be cubed. That's how even a small change in temperature could lead to a large error in the reading.

Experimental error and Noise

You'll notice from the display that the device doesn't sit at a reading of 0.000000000. There is, as should be expected, a little bit of 'noise' an expected amount of interference that causes the clock not to be perfectly synchronised. Noise is defined as anything that alters the sensitivity of a piece of measuring equipment. 

The creator of the DT meter, Ron Heath, states that the average noise should be +/- 4 or 5 milliseconds (2). Displayed on the meter screen as 0.000005 s/s. Joshua recorded an abnormal reading of 20 milliseconds, way above the noise under normal conditions. That would appear on the meter as 0.00002 s/s.

The catch comes when we consider what the sources of the noise are considered to be by the DT meter's creator. He states on the device's promotional website and in its instruction manual (3)

"A 1:1 time rate where the two rates of time are the same will read 0.00000XXX where the XXX is noise and temperature drift that defines the limits of the meter sensitivity."

Interesting he'd mention temperature as a cause of noise. When we consider that Joshua is using the device in the desert, where it's presumably extremely hot, shouldn't we expect the thermal contribution to the noise to be much greater?
Heath seems to aware of this potential fault in the system. His website advises that the system is used away from direct sunlight and extreme heat. He also advises that the cable element should be buried. As was pointed out to me by Nick Stone, it would also seem from this recommendation that, aside from the effect of temperature and direct sunlight, the system isn't designed to be carried around harsh terrain.

It probably hasn't escaped your attention that this entire claim can be debunked by reading the instruction manual of the device that was used to collect the data. 
Another thing that we have to consider is that the difference in time that is displayed is an average of the differences measured over a period of five seconds. This is significant because if the system fails to send a signal or fails to register a received signal then this would presumably cause an extremely large difference in the average travel times. The anomaly Joshua recorded could simply be a result of a system failure. Perhaps a momentary drop in power, or exposure to an unusually strong magnetic field. 

How science works

Of course, these kinds of faults are present with all forms of scientific equipment, so how do scientists account for this kind of anomaly?

The answer is they take lots of measurements. Then they see if other people can get the same measurements. Then they try to control for other factors which could have caused the measurements. These are things that Joshua has failed to do. He's registered one anomalous result and based his belief in a time-warp on the basis of this. As we've mentioned on this blog several times, this is what investigator Kenny Biddle calls 'Anomaly hunting'. I'm not sure that the term has ever fit better than in this case. In fact, Joshua even tells us he was in the desert to "hunt for anomalies" it would seem he found one and immediately called the local news! 

Sharon Hill of Doubtful News left the above comment on the Fox5 news report that alludes to this point. It was one of many comments on the story that highlights the idea to Joshua that his results shouldn't be singular and should be reproducible by others. Joshua could've responded to this criticism by releasing his results and showing his methodology. He didn't.

He responded by producing a 17-minute podcast (4) telling others how to 'handle criticism'. On the show, he suggests his critics don't understand science and refers to the anomalous measurements that led to the discovery of the gulf stream. The problem is, those measurements were reproduced. If reproduction had failed the idea would have never been developed.

Warren needs to realise that if he wants his findings to be considered 'science' he has to follow the strictures of that discipline and that means you show your findings and you submit to peer review. If you're found to have made a mistake, you accept it and move on. Most importantly, you don't present your work based on one result.

In his podcast, Joshua also makes reference to a fellow investigator who he seems to hold in some esteem. He talks about his person being 'driven from the field' by negativity and haters. I think I know who he is talking about. This is a man who was forced to leave the field because he couldn't handle peer-review. When the mistakes he had made were exposed he doubled down on them and retreated to an echo-chamber. He attacked his critics and extremely personal and unfair ways.

Joshua. Don't be the same. Accept your mistakes or work to prove they weren't mistakes. That's the only way you'll grow. And it's the only way you'll ever be considered to be 'doing science'.

I reached out to Joshua P Warren for more complete data rom his investigations. When I receive it I will post an update.