Science: The Trouble with Gravity

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Lots of people, including Einstein (see above), talk about gravity, the restraining force which makes people walk on floors instead of floating in midair. What worries Roger Babson, 74, economic oracle and head of the Babson Institute, is that no one does anything about it.

These days Babson is doing something about it. Last week his Gravity Research Foundation of New Boston, N.H. awarded three prizes for the best essays on doing away with gravity. What Babson is after is an "antigravity screen" to insulate heavy objects from the pull of the gravity-causing earth. He likes to play with the notion that people, airplanes, etc. could be made weightless at will.*

For 30 years, Seer Babson has been nursing a grudge against gravity and studying the life of Sir Isaac Newton, who first unmasked the enemy. At first he kept his campaign secret from his 15,000 economic advisees, "for fear they would think I was a little off in my upper story." But recently he began to battle openly. "I think the time has come," he says, "when I have developed thoughts which may help millions of people."

Many of his business admirers apparently think so too. Since the announcement last fall of the Gravity Research Foundation, letters have flooded in. Many came from cranks—e.g., one man described a "whirlpool of force" in Oregon where trees and people all lean toward the magnetic north. But inquiries came from impressed businessmen too. A leading shoe manufacturer offered Babson $100,000 for "something that can be put into the sole of a shoe to insulate against gravity." Floor-covering manufacturers showed a lively interest in the possibility of "flying" carpets.

Babson himself believes that the most important use for anti-gravity screens would be in generating power. Babson's anti-gravity essay contest attracted 88 papers, which Babson read with delight ("It was just like opening Christmas presents"). On the advice of Boston's business panjandrum Charles Francis Adams ("Get a professor to look them over. That will take the smell off it"), he had the papers checked by Physics Professor Howard O. Stearns of Simmons College.

Unfortunately, none of the essays told Roger Babson how to make an anti-gravity screen. First Prizewinner David T. Wittry of the University of Wisconsin ($1,000) described historical attempts, all failures. Second Prizewinner C. Peter Johnson Jr. of Harvard ($500) dived into unproductive mathematics. Third Prizewinner: John C. Cook of Pennsylvania State College ($250). But Babson is not downhearted. He remembers the last time he talked with Thomas Alva Edison, who died in 1931. Said Edison: "Babson, remember you don't know nothin' about nothin'. You've got to find something that insulates from gravity. I think it's coming about from some alloy." There are plenty of alloys to try.

*Modern physicists, taking Einstein's lead, consider gravity an inherent property of space which contains massive bodies. They think it unlikely that it can be "neutralized" or "screened off" like radiation.