Sunday, October 9, 2011

High-speed Neutrinos

     On September 23rd researchers at CERN, Europe’s main physics laboratory, announced that subatomic particles called neutrinos had apparently sped from the lab’s headquarters near Geneva, through the Earth’s crust, to an underground detector 730km (450 miles) away, around 60 billionths of a second faster than light would take to cover the same distance. If this observation turns out to be true, it will mean that Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, which sets the speed of light as the limit of velocity in the Universe, is in need of tweaking.
     According to the Special Theory, traveling faster than light would open the possibility of travel through time, which would lead to several paradoxes. For example:
There was a young lady named Bright,
Who could travel faster than light.
She took off one day,
In a relative way,
And came back the previous night.
Could a person travel back in time and kill his grandfather before the time-traveler's father was conceived?
And a joke brought on by the neutrino finding:
The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don't allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here.”
A neutrino walks into a bar.
(You can't kick a neutrino out of a bar he has not yet entered.)
     But I digress. Although it could be that the neutrinos took a short cut through another dimension, interacted in an as yet unknown manner with the matter through which they passed, or any of several other exotic possibilities, the smart money is that a more mundane error will be found, e.g., in the synchronization of the clocks used in measuring the velocity.
     Whether or not this discovery turns out to be correct, the whole episode is a beautiful example of the way science works.
     Whenever a new scientific theory is suggested, scientists around the world immediately attempt to confirm or disprove it. Since 1905 Einstein's Special Theory has been confirmed in millions of observations, but as the neutrino finding suggests, scientists are still subjecting it to scrutiny. If even one confirmed result were to contradict the theory, the theory would be expanded to accommodate the finding, or in the extreme case, abandoned and replaced by a new one.
     In this case, it is highly unlikely that the Special Theory will need to be abandoned. Just as it expanded Isaac Newton's theories to accommodate new findings, the Special Theory will probably be adjusted to include the new discovery.
     Although science is built upon a foundation of prior discoveries, it is primarily a method of inquiry – not a structure. It will always be tentative – always subject to correction. Contrary to the other system, religion, for understanding the Universe, that is its strength. Science asks questions that may never be answered – religion gives answers that may never be questioned.
     My books, “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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