By John Rennie
Posting in Design
Physicists are wary of news that could force revisions in Einstein's theory of special relativity. But that doesn't mean scientists are fearful of revolutionary discoveries, explains columnist John Rennie
By far, one of the most sensational science stories of 2011 has been that of the allegedly faster-than-light particles reported by the subterranean physics laboratory under the Apennine mountains in Italy. When the news broke this past September, it instantly triggered speculation (some of it a bit overheated) that the discovery might upend physics, force a rewrite of Einstein's theory of special relativity, reveal particles traveling backward in time, and undermine concepts of cause and effect.
Physicists around the world were quick to temper such speculations by pointing out that the reported results were almost certainly a mistake. Last week, however, the Italian team announced that a rerun of the experiments carefully designed to eliminate a source of possible error had only confirmed the earlier results.
Yet physicists aren't satisfied. They keep on citing reasons why the faster-than-light particles would conflict with theory. Even colleagues at the same Italian physics facility have declared that the observations must be wrong.
So why aren't scientists accepting the verification of these seemingly impossible faster-than-light particles? Are they just refusing to acknowledge that the concepts on which they built their careers are wrong? Are they rebelling against a "paradigm shift" in their field, as the historian Thomas Kuhn put it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? And does their behavior lend credence to the idea often spread by cold fusion enthusiasts, climate change deniers, intelligent design theorists, UFO believers and others that researchers are more interested in protecting mainstream scientific orthodoxy than in finding the truth?
Not at all. In fact, the scrutiny of these supposedly faster-than-light particles is an example of how science is supposed to work and helps to demonstrate why such conspiratorial criticisms are wrong.
Faster than expected
First, a quick recap of exactly what the strange faster-than-light results are. Fourteen hundred meters beneath the Italian mountain for which it is named, the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (Gran Sasso National Laboratory) is conducting an experiment called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tracking Apparatus). OPERA detects and measures neutrinos, ethereally aloof particles that have long been understood to shoot unperturbed through matter at the speed of light. OPERA's detectors are set up to catch a beam of neutrinos generated by a powerful accelerator at the CERN laboratory in Geneva. In less than three milliseconds, the neutrinos zip 730 kilometers through the earth's crust, which filters out other, unwanted particles in transit.
Sifting through the data, however, the OPERA team repeatedly saw that the neutrinos appeared to be arriving 60 billionths of a second sooner than expected. They were therefore moving 0.00025 percent faster than light -- a tiny but jarring discrepancy because Einstein's special relativity theory established that no particle could be accelerated to beyond light speed.
It's worth noting that the OPERA experiment is not the first one to find evidence of faster-than-light (or superluminal) neutrinos. Back in 2007, the MINOS neutrino project associated with Fermilab in Illinois published a similarly curious result, but the support for that conclusion was thin and few scientists were persuaded by it. The observations by the OPERA team presented in September were far more robust and compelling (the team claims that the result has a statistical significance of "6 sigma," meaning that the odds of it being a fluke are less than one in half a billion). And the latest, more rigorous repetition of the experiments adds that much more evidence that the effect might be real.
This OPERA ain't over ...
But the OPERA results are still far from constituting proof for superluminal neutrinos, revolutionary as those would be. First, the re-do of the experiment was only a very limited test of the first's findings. One criticism of the first OPERA evidence was that the way of measuring precisely when neutrinos left Geneva and arrived at Gran Sasso was in effect slightly mushy. The improved system in the second round of experiments used sharper, shorter bursts of neutrinos whose timing was more certain.
Yet that change fixes only one source of potential error. Scientists have also called into question, for example, whether relativistic effects in the GPS system that helps to clock the neutrinos might be biasing the measurements, or whether distance between the CERN and OPERA setups might be slightly shorter than believed. (The distance would only have to be off by about 22 meters over the 730-kilometer distance to account for the discrepancy; of course, the distance is supposedly measured to an accuracy within 20 centimeters.) All these possibilities need to be ruled out before the results stand firm.
Another problem is that the OPERA team performed both the initial measurements and the more recent ones. No one questions the credibility or competence of the OPERA researchers, but independent verification is needed because the scientists might unwittingly be introducing the same skew repeatedly into the experiments. Replication of the results by different scientists is the acid test. Indeed, spokespeople for the MINOS facility have said that it may be able to run a preliminary test next year.
For the OPERA results to be strongly vindicated, they need as many independent, rigorous verifications as possible because "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence," in the words of the late astrophysicist and skeptic Carl Sagan. Frustrated proponents of unorthodox science sometimes complain that Sagan's standard begs the questions of what constitutes "extraordinary evidence," but no matter what, more than one repetition is necessary for something this amazing.
Of course, those same disgruntled and suspicious critics might also claim that all these rationales for more proof are beside the point -- that the ugly truth is the physicists don't want to see the edifice of Einstein's physics toppled. That argument, however, is built on a misunderstanding of why scientists hold the views that they do.
The inconvenient facts
Faster-than-light particles don't seem unlikely just because they are at odds with theories that physicists are loath to give up. Rather, they are at odds with huge amounts of observational and experimental data that gave rise to those theories.
For example, one of the stunning vindications of modern astrophysics involved the supernova 1987A: shortly before that star exploded in 1987, it released a burst of neutrinos precisely when models of stellar collapse predicted that it should. But if neutrinos actually move faster than light by the margin OPERA suggests, those neutrinos should have arrived at Earth four years earlier than they did.
Similarly, the theoretical refutation of the OPERA results that Nobel laureate Sheldon L. Glashow and Andrew G. Cohen have offered is that any superluminal neutrinos from CERN should have shed almost all their energy by the time they reached Gran Sasso because of a phenomenon called bremsstrahlung radiation. Bremsstrahlung is observed whenever charged particles interact with matter.
Perhaps some extenuating complexities can explain these discrepancies: maybe neutrinos from CERN and those from stars move at different velocities, and maybe superfast neutrinos may uniquely avoid radiating away their energy. But for now, the more parsimonious explanation is that the OPERA results are wrong.
What's almost absurd, however, is to think that scientists would steer away from iconoclastic discoveries to protect their professional standing. But the career of any scientist who has the evidence to knock down pillars of his or her field isn't ruined -- it's made.
The physicists who first prove the existence of faster-than-light particles are instantly in the history books. That credential looks pretty good to tenure committees and granting agencies. The same would be true for any climate scientist who could truly, conclusively prove that worries about climate change from industrial greenhouse gases were groundless, or for any biologist who could knock off evolution as the best explanation for living things' traits. They wouldn't be blackballed by their professions: they would be among the most famous scientists alive and able to name their own appointments.
Moreover, revolutions in science aren't just good for the leaders of the revolution. The demonstrated existence of faster-than-light particles would mean that other new physics remains to be discovered, and lots of new work needs to be done to fit the older observations into the new paradigms. Those opportunities would be welcomed by legions of physicists looking to make their mark. Indeed, the OPERA results have already inspired a number of scientific papers.
Einstein's theory of special relativity sits on a pedestal of honor, not on an altar. Plenty of physicists would be glad to knock it off and put something else in its place. But it may take something more substantial than OPERA's superluminal neutrinos to bring it down.
Image: Particle tracks. (Credit: CERN)
Nov 21, 2011
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What if the speed of light isn't constant? What if the speed of light varies through time and space? That would create some interesting theory. At least I think so. Antimatter is the mind and consciousness of all living entities. You are your own universe. Reality is where the minds (antimatter) meets the physical universe. Interested? Then read my philosophical multiverse theory. Google crestroyer theory, and find it instantly. http://crestroyertheory.com/the-theory/
John, you seem like a nice guy, but many things are speaking against what you're saying here - scientific skepticism is one thing, but the most scientists are so bloody close minded that it's ridiculous - not just about this. Things are not much different than it was 300 years ago, it'd be much better to have a science community really 'looking for' holes in current theories - not trying to avoid any changes. And that should be the principal of any scientific mind. And it's not like our physics is 'that good' and that we actually understand it all - and so we can say', well, we're satisfied, let's not make waves, afterall we can travel to starts right? Have abundance of energy, our environment is clean and thanks god we're no longer running things on petrol :). You see what I'm saying - the science just scratched the surface really, yes we have computers etc. but we still don't know soooo many things - by stating that "it's impossible to" have neutrinos traveling faster than c (cause they must shed energy??? the proof being made by the evidence of the very theory that is being ransacked :) is making me wanna cry really. We should concentrate on finding the things 'we don't know' not trying to avoid finding about them in the first place,
When they invented tunnelling diodes, it appeared at first that electrons were moving faster than light. What they eventually surmised was that the electron was being deformed by the diode. If we think of an electron as a sphere, the centre of the mass and charge is in the centre. But after a tunnelling diode, while the diameter may effectively stay the same, the centre of mass and charge move closer to the leading edge. I'm wondering if the earth itself isn't providing a tunnelling effect, deforming the neutrinos so that they only appear to be travelling faster than light.
Going back in time means having the energy available to reconstruct everything that decayed due to the effects of entropy. Including your grand father. The arrow of time was set, as always into the future by the initial conditions of the singularity that spawned our Universe, together with the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
They need to start turning on the detectors BEFORE the experiment. If the particels where faster than C then they would be traveling back in time.
to account for dissonance between current finding and previous speed of light calculations is that the speed of light is not a constant but instead is influenced, in the article's example, by causes not yet understood.
So far this process has not been much different than discovery in the '90s that the galaxies were actually accelerating faster away from each other, which lead to the belief that there is something called "dark energy" (the actual nature of which is still unknown) causing the acceleration. In the case of galactic acceleration, there were two independent groups that obtained the same results. At the time, there was also lots of discussion of experimental error that could actually be causing the observations, almost all of which has been eliminated. It is interesting that whenever something radical like this comes along, usually it's the older distinguished scientists that defend the status quo. It's the young and middle-aged scientists who usually come up with new theories to explain the results if they don't go away.
First of all why should Scientists publish contradictions on such established phenomena and face the criticism. Can't they restrain and make sure their theory is correct before rushing to the press? It is sad indeed.
Einstein theorized that gravity warps space-time and that also effects the speed of light. I remember an experiment about a decade ago where two atomic clocks that were synchronized with each other, one was launched into orbit and the other stayed on Earth. The two clocks were compared when the space capsule returned and the clock that was in space was a detectable short time behind the Earthbound clock. What this experiment showed was that in lesser gravity (Earth orbit) that time moved slightly slower than on the Earth. I am still trying to wrap my head around this, if this is extended to interstellar space where gravity is even less, then what is the speed of light? This is one aspect of relativity that may only be understood mathmatically.
They have released the information, not for a chance in the spotlight, but after checking and rechecking their data, they need other scientists to try experiments to see if they get the same results. That's how it works. One person or team cannot work in isolation and come up with and prove a theory of everything and wait until they are ready to publish the book before letting other scientists verify their findings.
Go back & read the original accounts of the experiment & what they were trying to prove. Your post has both the theory & the facts all mixed up.