A week ago the world went wild over CERN's tentative claim that it could make neutrinos travel faster than light. Suddenly, intergalactic tourism and day trips to the real Jurassic Park were back on the menu, despite everything Einstein said. Now, however, a team of scientists at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands reckons it's come up with a more plausible (and disappointing) explanation of what happened: the GPS satellites used to measure the departure and arrival times of the racing neutrinos were themselves subject to Einsteinian effects, because they were in motion relative to the experiment. This relative motion wasn't properly taken into account, but it would have decreased the neutrinos' apparent journey time. The Dutch scientists calculated the error and came up with the 64 nanoseconds. Sound familiar? That's because it's almost exactly the margin by which CERN's neutrinos were supposed to have beaten light. So, it's Monday morning, Alpha Centauri and medieval jousting tournaments remain as out of reach as ever, and we just thought we'd let you know.
That’s quite a good summary of the faster than light Neutrino kerfuffle as of the current time. When this breakthrough was making the rounds on the blogs, my reaction was a big “meh”. I was almost sure that it was all overblown, and now, that appears to have been the right attitude to take. Why?
Well, it’s part of a mentality and a belief system called skepticism. Instead of believing what I want to believe (or disbelieve). I will try to believe what has been proven, or has the most evidence behind it. My reaction to any claim is to ask “what evidence do you have to support that position?”. However, it’s more than that; it also comprises a set of mental tools that are used to evaluate claims and evidence. The reason I was instantly sceptical is that the theory of relativity that if true, it would overturn so much observed science that it would instantly qualify for increased scrutiny. Example:
If someone comes running to you and says “I just saw Johnny floating upwards!”. Would you reply “Holy shit – Newton was wrong! Call the press!”. No, because the principle of parsimony (if you hear hooves – think horses, not zebras) helps you see that such a claim stands opposite all the continual evidence from everyday that gravity is working in the same old way. The burden of the claim necessitates extreme skepticism to the thinking person. It is so great, that alternate explanations such as sky-hooks are more plausible without further inspection.
A sceptical view is painfully evident when you encounter someone with no skepticism whatsoever. Some people are credulous. They have no tools to differentiate between the veracity of claim A to claim B. I think we all will have met people like this in our day-to-day lives. A recent example of this, at least as it pertains to the faster than light neutrino news story, is Charles Krauthammer. Some of you will know that I respect him very much, but a recent piece called “Gone in 60 nanoseconds”.
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 — the sinews of a postwar world that feels today to be unraveling.
I am talking about something far more important. Which is why it made only 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.
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 — some faulty measurement, some overlooked contaminant — 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, if that did happen on this Orient Express hurtling between Switzerland and Italy, then everything we know about the universe is wrong.
Here, Krauhammer accuses scientists of giving into emotion and not wanting to admit it is true. This is nonsense! Science, has continually overthrown what we have previously cherished as being “right” – it’s what science does. From quantum physics to the germ theory of disease, science is introducing new ways of viewing the world into the human mind. However, it does this through evidence.
Brian Cox, a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, urged caution. "If you've got something travelling faster than light, then it's the most profound discovery of the last 100 years or more in physics. It's a very, very big deal," he said on BBC 6 Music on Friday. "It requires a complete rewriting of our understanding of the universe."
Professor Jim Al-Khalili at the University of Surrey said it was most likely that something was skewing the results. "If the neutrinos have broken the speed of light, it would overturn a keystone theory from the last century of physics. That's possible, but it's far more likely that there is an error in the data. So let me put my money where my mouth is: if the Cern experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV."
There is an important point here, and that is that the scientists and skeptics had the proper attitude, in that it produced the correct interpretation and prediction of reality. An incident occurred, and the tools that are in our heads directed us to the truth whilst others wallowed in emotional acceptance of something they wanted to believe (like Krauthammer does here) the reasons they do this are unsure and may differ from person to person, it is interesting to see that Krauthammer accuses others of denying based on emotion when he is the one accepting on emotion. Projection Charles?
Why? It probably ahs some relation to the right’s dismissal of science and approbation of ‘elites’. I hope this is not the case as that is not something I’d normally attribute to Krauthammer. On the other hand – it may be everyday excitement that there are possibilities out there that boggle the mind.
Skeptical thinking and science are tools that slowly guide us to the light, bit-by-bit. I’m still open to the facts but the case seems closed on this one.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:27 AM