‘Faster-Than-Light’ Neutrinos? Maybe, But Probably Not

Disclaimer: the subject of this post expresses my opinion, based on nothing more than four decades of reading available popular material on particle physics and cosmology. I am not an expert. But frankly, some things are hard to believe, and this is one of them. Einstein was wrong about a number of things, but there’s never before been any serious basis for doubt about the aspect of relativity that sets the speed of light as an absolute speed limit for matter.

A good summary of the crux of the problem can be found here. That blog post also contains a classic old quote: “Nothing travels faster than light but gossip.” And that has certainly been the case with regard to the results of this experiment.

To the CERN researchers’ credit, they are not making any aggressive claims but are awaiting reproductions of the experiment at other labs… something that may take months. Fermilab, arguably America’s premier particle facility and frequently over the decades in competition with CERN in Switzerland for the major breakthroughs in particle physics, will be evaluating existing data that may shed light (ahem) on the neutrino speed result, using data already collected in past experiments.

As a reward for Fermilab’s efforts, the federal government will shut off funding for its Tevatron, which was the world’s most powerful particle collider until CERN built the Large Hadron Collider, which was started in 2008. This is part of Obama’s and the Republicans’ plan to keep America in the forefront of science save a few bucks as part of their austerity drive.

I am enough of a once-proud America booster to wish that America could have more to do with the great results in the future of science. But I think I might as well just stuff those wishes where the sun don’t shine. Between cuts to education and decimation of research funding, we’re not going to be in the forefront of much of anything.

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  • jams o donnell  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 11:47 am

    Such short sightedness. Our own governments have been just as culpable. Britain could have been at the forefront of the IT revolution, it could have a credible space programme (or at least be the lead force in ESA rather than France) but oh no.

    Perhaps many of your politicians will not be happy until all science, arts and culture conform to Talibaptist principles

    • Steve  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm

      jams, you’re right that America has a unique obstacle to the pursuit of science: anti-science religious crackpots who manage to wield influence in government. At least Britain doesn’t face those folks (AFAIK).

      America has gone from merely sluggish to full-tilt decline in recent years. The notion of applying accumulated wisdom to current economic or scientific problems is outright resisted by certain factions, and because it involves their religions or their political ideologies, there’s no convincing them that what they are doing is a bad idea.

      And there’s the whole empire thing. Britain has been there, done that; one would hope America could learn the lesson by observation rather than hard experience. But noooo…

  • MandT  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    particle physics and cosmology. Same here Steve, a subject that also fascinated my dad. In the year before he died we spent several wonderful phone calls on these subjects. He had to call me in secret, because my family had turned on me for Catholic reasons. I sent all the books I could. he was seeking……..

    • Steve  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 6:52 pm

      MandT, your father has my admiration even though I never met him.

      Many years ago, I shared a house with my “virtual sister” (I have no biological siblings). I had the front half of the house; she had the back half. She was extremely well-read on spiritual matters, mostly Eastern but some Christian thought as well. Considering my own preoccupations, I once offered to make signs for our dividing doors; hers was to read “Department of Ultimate Matters” and mine was to say “Department of Penultimate Matters.” I never made the signs, but we both remembered the subdivision of effort.

      Many people in America seem to fixate on spirituality through religion. I could never do that. I found, instead, that contemplating the fabric of the universe filled some of the same need in me. It still does.

      BTW, a recommendation among relatively recent books: Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages. It’s only a few years old, and I learned a ton of new stuff from it.

  • Bryan  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    Most people just don’t understand that you have to have the basic research before you can go any further. Science begets engineering begets technology begets neat, new stuff.

    If you stand still, you will get run over.

    The thing that people fail to understand is that a lot of things that we use daily are actually failed research, or discoveries that are used for an entirely different purpose. The Internet started as a military communications systems that would overcome problems during nuclear attack, and now it is the home of Friday Cat Blogging. Post-It notes are the result of a failed search for a better glue.

    There are lots of things that we take for granted that are the result of searches for something entirely different, and someone saying, this would be useful for X. Dupont got into the fiber business while trying to create a better explosive.

    We are falling farther behind the rest of the world every year because of the superstitious clowns who wield entirely too much power in the US and the short-sightedness of US corporations.

    • Steve  On Monday September 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm

      Bryan, what frustrates me most is the accommodationist approach many schools force on their science teachers: when my high school biology teacher began the section on Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, she prefaced it with a canonical disclaimer that it was “only a theory.” Only a theory! As if a “theory” were somehow inferior to a “fact.” Several generations of students have grown up believing just that: there are “facts” and there are non-facts which are “only a theory.” What rubbish. But 45 years ago that’s what my bio teacher was required to say before teaching evolution.

      Today, OTOH, the nuts have taken over the asylum. You have a large majority of Republicans who see science in opposition to religion, and wish to prefer religion in the formulation of public policy. If this continues, even apart from all the political blackmail the GOPers perpetrate (successfully to date), the U.S. might as well hang it up as far as having any kind of future in the global economy. And if that economic collapse happens to us, the people who suppressed science will peddle some other alleged cause for the collapse, e.g., we didn’t pray hard enough, or there were too many “infidels” (Jews, Muslims, atheists, UUs, Quakers) among us. Religion introduced into public life has more bad consequences than are generally acknowledged; our founders understood that, but apparently the Michele Bachmanns and Rick Santorums of the world do not. If those people have their way, America is just plain sunk, doomed to decline and decay.

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