Archive for Saturday, October 8, 2011

Speedy neutrino upsets scientific absolutes

October 8, 2011


— “We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” says the bartender.

A neutrino walks into a bar.”

— Joke circulating on the Internet

The world as we know it is on the brink of disintegration, on the verge of dissolution. No, I’m not talking about the collapse of the euro, of international finance, of the Western economies, of the democratic future, of the unipolar moment, of the American dream, of French banks, of Greece as a going concern, of Europe as an idea, of Pax Americana.

I am talking about something far more important. Which is why it only made the back pages of your newspaper, if it made it at all. Scientists at CERN (the European high-energy physics consortium) have announced the discovery of a particle that can travel faster than light.

Neutrinos fired 454 miles from a supercollider outside Geneva to an underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, took less time (60 nanoseconds less) than light to get there. Or so the physicists think. Or so they measured. Or so they have concluded after checking for every possible artifact and experimental error.

The implications of such a discovery are so mind-boggling, however, that these same scientists immediately requested that other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment. Something must have been wrong to account for a result that, if we know anything about the universe, is impossible.

And that’s the problem. It has to be impossible because, if not, everything we know about the universe is wrong.

The fundamental axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition on speed faster than light. Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time slows to zero, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has.

Until two weeks ago Thursday.

That’s when the results were announced. To oversimplify grossly: If the Gran Sasso scientists had a plate to record the arrival of the neutrinos and a super-powerful telescope to peer (through the Alps!) directly into the lab in Geneva from which they were being fired, the Gran Sasso guys would have “heard” the neutrinos clanging against the plate before they observed the Geneva guys squeeze the trigger on the neutrino gun.

Sixty nanoseconds before, to be precise. Wrap your mind around that one.

It’s as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time Topeka was released from Earth’s gravity. These things don’t happen. Natural laws don’t just expire between shifts at McDonald’s.

Not that there aren’t already mysteries in physics. Neutrinos themselves are ghostly particles that travel through nearly everything unimpeded. (Thousands are traversing your body as you read this.) But that is simplicity itself compared to quantum mechanics, whose random arbitrariness so offended Einstein that he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe.

Aphorisms don’t trump reality, however. They are but a frail, poignant protest against a Nature that disdains the most cherished human notions of order and elegance, truth and beauty.

But if quantum mechanics was a challenge to human sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their undoing. It means that Einstein’s relativity — a theory of uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100 years — is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.

It means that the “standard model” of subatomic particles that stands at the center of all modern physics is wrong.

Nor does it stop there. This will not just overthrow physics. Astronomy and cosmology measure time and distance in the universe on the assumption of light speed as the cosmic limit. Their foundations will shake as well.

It cannot be. Yet, this is not a couple of guys in a garage peddling cold fusion. This is no crank wheeling a perpetual motion machine into the patent office. These are the best researchers in the world using the finest measuring instruments, having subjected their data to the highest levels of scrutiny, including six months of cross-checking by 160 scientists from 11 countries.

But there must be some error. Because otherwise everything changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then shortly and surely, new theologies.

Why? Because you can’t have neutrinos getting kicked out of taverns they have not yet entered.

Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


Getaroom 6 years, 3 months ago

Finally, something worth reading from the prunelike mind of Krauthammer.
You see you see occasionally, like neutrinos, even someone like Heir Krauthammer can surprise us. But what if this had been a (and GOD forbid the possibilities) a progressive liberal neutriono. It is a wonder this was not reported on The LIars Network/Faux News as another ObamaCare trick.
What faster than light? Must be another progressive trick to distract Neocons from the job of ushering in the next great depression before any light is shed on the truth!

guess_again 6 years, 3 months ago

And Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Sam Brownback all do not believe in evolution.

Me? I'm going to go get my dangerous "government injection" for flu this morning, courtesy of the Socialist Douglas County emergency management this morning. And I will thank them.

bearded_gnome 6 years, 3 months ago

It’s as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time Topeka was released from Earth’s gravity. These things don’t happen. Natural laws don’t just expire between shifts at McDonald’s.

---am the first to comment on this? wow! Topeka released from earth's gravity ... hey can we vote on that one! LOL! not a bad idea.

finally a useful comment from Thuja (10:22).

if no measurement noise/error is involved, then this is indeed shattering news and does indeed show that man's knowledge is limited and flawed. we all need reminding of that.

I actually had heard this news before Krauthammer today. if this is indeed true, it implies that time travel can be done under the right conditions.

and it implies you could go back in time and change the present by new actions in the past.

reference James Gunn's comments about imagining the future (cited in the Andy Hyland KU blog several days ago).

cthulhu_4_president 6 years, 3 months ago

As a premise, the scientific process assumes that man's knowledge is incomplete and flawed, or else it would stop. After all, why bother asking questions if you already think you know everything.

The fact that the scientists immediately requested to have their results replicated is not shocking either, nor does it demonstrate that the scientists thought "this can't be possible". This is how science works. A result is replicated and reviewed by critical peers.

Finally, the reason this didn't make headline news is that it really isn't a big deal. It is not a huge upset in the universe, it is simply new knowledge. It doesn't mean einstein and all science based on it was wrong. We don't need all new physics, just updated physics. A good analogy is how einstein and quantum mechanics really screwed with Newton's calculus. The weird things that happen on the quantum scale don't prove Newton was wrong, just that his findings were incomplete, and nonabsolute. It's times like this, when findings like this are made, that the weakminded screech about how this represents some flaw in the scientific process, as a longheld "truth" is overturned, but it's actually moments like this that show us how awesome the scientific process works as a self-correcting mechanism of objective knowledge. Awesome to see in action, and we all benefit.-

jafs 6 years, 3 months ago

I generally agree.

But this, like Einstein, may be more than a simple addition to our knowledge. Einstein took Newton's concepts about mass, etc. as fixed entities and changed that in a basic, fundamental way. It's true that the effects just show up on the margins, but either mass is a fixed entity, or it's not.

This may be similar - I'm not sure how exactly, but it may be a fundamental change in how we view the speed of light which affects other parts of physics in a deep way.

cthulhu_4_president 6 years, 3 months ago

An interesting this about the speed of light, is that it is an asymptotic limit. As such, it can be approached from below, or above. We have just never seen an example of approach from above until now, and this would seem to have little effect on concept of mass as a fixed entity. Of course, I make no claim to know more than any CERN worker. I'm sure they have read all their physics books, too!

And you're correct, though, that this could be a huge game-changer at some point. I really hope that it is. My main point was that speculating on what huge changes MIGHT happen because of this is an exercise in speculation only, at this point, and does not serve as an indictment of the scientific process. I look forward to the new era of knowledge that we are entering.

jafs 6 years, 3 months ago

It's been a while since I looked into phsyics, maybe my mass idea is off.

But something about Einstein challenged Newtonian concepts of fixedness, and even though the effects only showed up approaching the speed of light, they changed the basic concept of fixed to variable.

Sean Rudisel 6 years, 3 months ago

Why report a story two weeks old, hammered by other news agencies and media, all the while on the verge of being disproven at other facilities in the first place?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.