Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faster-than-light neutrinos

The big science news of the week has been the report of neutrinos traveling faster than light.

The mainstream media has framed the story as the downfall of "Einstein's most trusted theories," a violation of a "cardinal rule of physics" and the like. I suspect some outlets have trained cameras on the 13th floor of science buildings, waiting to capture images of scientists throwing themselves to their deaths over the news.

Physicist had it wrong all this time. How could they lie to us like that? Is ∑F=ma true, or just another lie coming from Big Physics?

It's mostly nonsense, of course. But apparently it's the only way you can run a story about physics research in the mainstream media.

One might reasonably wonder who's behind this physics-shattering research. Is it those pesky chemists with their "central science" braggadocio? Or wore yet: reality-denying economists? Of course not. It's physicists. And they're doing science. And if the science they do leads to a model better than the one we use now, then... well, that's how science works. Just as it did when evolutionists destroyed Piltdown Man. (Creationists could never have destroyed Piltdown Man because they are unfamiliar with the methods of science.)

There are no cardinal rules in science. No immutable laws etched into the stone permanence. There is a process for tentative acceptance or rejection: the process of science. (Not the "scientific method" cleanly described the first chapter of pre-college science textbooks, mind you. That's an unrealistic and simplified distillation not actually practiced by scientists.)

May people think there are laws in science. Permanent, perfect, and absolute truths that explain a whole set of observations. I was recently scolded for this notion by a commenter on a right-wing blog who educated me on the fact that Newtonian Gravity had achieved "law" status, by someone who was clearly not familiar with General Relativity.

We do a disservice to the essence of science when we invoke the term "law." No principle in science is safe from attack, dismemberment, and replacement. And we like it that way. We work to produce the best model we can. But nothing is considered permanent.

If Special Relativity must be discarded into the dustbin of science, it can keep company with the luminiferous aether, phlogiston, and so on. And science will rejoice and be happy in it.

Then again. and I hate to even mention this while the big media ballyhoo still lingers in the air, it might be there was an error somewhere in the faster-than-light neutrino study. If that turns out to be the case, don't look for article in the mainstream media detailing where the research went wrong. There's no sexy there. No collapsing pillars of science imagery to evoke. And how many column-inches is anyone going to devote to "oops" or "never mind"?

As ever, xkcd sums it up nicely (click to embiggen):

Hat tip to Bernard Cleyet.


Rayna said...

. When Galileo shared his knowledge on the heliocentric theory, nobody else believed him esp. the Christian Church. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that he had few followers since Galileo's theory is true. He even had proof. Only now, do I understand what the Church must have been feeling. It is strange to think that what we have grown up taking for granted may not be true at all. However, every science teacher I have had has drilled it into my head that scientific theories are never certain. Because of this, I am willing to except this possible change in everything we know. However, some of my friends are not so flexible...

Dean Baird said...

There may be new physics here, and that would be very groovy. Chances are that the results are unreproducible. Not quite Cold Fusion 2011, but still.

kbot3000 said...

Hi Dean,

Well - even if it turns out that the OPERA results are correct then we wouldn't really throw out special relativity. We know that relativity is a good approximation since it correctly describes a huge class of experiments and results in much the same way that we haven't thrown out newtonian mechanics. I wouldn't get into a plane or a car if i thought that were true. Rather - much like the case of Newtonian mechanics we would simply realize that it is a valid approximation for a large number of situations. Imagine trying to design a car from the Dirac equation!
Rather - we would search for a more fundamental theory in which relativity would end up being approximately true for a large number of cases...

The thing about the OPERA result is that while the principle of the measurement is simple enough the devil is in the details. Knowing the time and distance to that level of precision is a tricky thing and one can imagine that no matter how careful they are being - effects that you would normally ignore or are irrelevant are now super important.
On the other hand - wouldn't that be great if we did find that it were true!

abot5000 said...

This is not a surprise to me, because I was raised to understand everything as a theory that is generally approved by a group of (mostly) men who are the experts in their field. In history, a lot, is just theory based on reading artifacts or writings that could ultimately have been just someone's personal opinions, but because often that is all we have to go on, it becomes written in our text books as fact. Isn't it amazing to think that the body supposedly buried outside of his compound was discovered to be that of a middle-age woman, and there is no physical evidence to suggest he actually was captured and committed suicide? Yet, today, even new text books are still publishing the old muddled accounts of the Russian soldiers who supposedly found him. I guess conserving old beliefs makes people feel comfortable, but I have always looked at everything with a critical eye. Even in science everything is a theory; however, when the big shots all seem to agree it seems logical enough to go with it for a while, until the next big game changer comes along. I mean at one point, scientists were convinced the world was flat...There is ALWAYS new physics to come, right?

P.S. I am reading a wrinkle in time with my students right now and we were just discussing all the known dimensions and if "tesseracts" do exist...why not, I say!!

abot5000 said...

Plus, Rayna you forgot about Copernicus... let's give everyone their due credit...and the Church was feeling more challenged in it's credibility and authority than worried about having a new understanding of the world. I think they were more worried about their political power beginning to crumble than they were about science... but that's just my opinion based on my experiences with the history of the period we like to call the "Scientific revolution" (even though people were rediscovering what Arab, Chinese, possible Mayan and Greek scholars had known for a very long time...Though I am sure people in those times were quite shocked to have their worlds turned upside down (no pun intended). Just some historical perspective for the science blog :)

Anonymous said...

Rayna said...
. When Galileo shared his knowledge on the heliocentric theory, nobody else believed him esp. the Christian Church. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that he had few followers since Galileo's theory is true. He even had proof. Only now, do I understand what the Church must have been feeling.

According to:

The way to prove this is by means of physical experiments and arguments rather than observation proofs. Galileo contributed a great deal to such arguments in refutation of the Ptolemaic theory, but it was Newton who first produced convincing proof supporting the geocentric theory.

no proof until Newton.