That Neutrino Thang!

Edit: Here is a link to the results which were posted during the night.

According to the mainstream media, some new discoveries at CERN seem to indicate that neutrinos can travel faster than light.  Since I’m finished with my exam week, I figured that I might comment a bit on this.

First of all, the Associated Press and the rest of the wires have a pretty bad track record on science reporting.  Every new development, whether it’s cancer research or particle physics, is sensationalized and touted as being revolutionary.  It’s only later, once all the legwork and analysis has been done, that we find out that initial results were misleading.  For the most part, these outfits have no real clue how peer-reviewed research works.  I find it hilarious that the media is already talking about how these latest findings will revolutionize particle physics, even though the data isn’t going to be formally released to the public until tomorrow.

Secondly, it’s hilarious how quickly the media acts to declare that a well-established theory, such as special relativity, is completely thrown out the window based upon some new results, however poorly understood they may be.  As a scientist and a skeptic, I’m the first to declare that sacred theories should always be open to question and criticism.  Dogma, regardless of its basis, really bothers me – this is partially why I’ve been such a critic of the blind adherence science seems to pay to evolution.  But, after 100 years of confirmation by theory and experiment, I’m a little reticent to start shouting from the rooftops that Einstein is dead.  As is typical, I suspect that this latest “revolution” will be elucidated by an examination of the data.

Third, and this is really just a clarification of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the idea that particles cannot exist that travel faster than the speed of light isn’t really contradictory to special relativity.  Traveling at, or accelerating to, the speed of light is prohibited, but the idea that there may be particles which simply exist at a speed greater than light is not a new concept.  This might seem to be a matter of semantics, but it isn’t.  A simple explanation of the phenomenon probably requires a detailed discussion of the Einstein field equations, but there isn’t much point in trying to discuss it.  Besides, I’m the first to admit that I don’t understand it all that well and the parts that I do understand are very complicated.  Suffice to say, particle physicists have long speculated that there may be particles which exist only at speeds greater than the speed of light, so even if this latest development is anything more than much ado about nothing, which I doubt, it isn’t as if Einstein got thrown under the bus or something.  Of course, if CERN were to claim that they are accelerating things like electrons or mesons from rest to speeds greater than the speed of light, I suppose we might have a few things to chat about.  But, thus far, that hasn’t been the case.


One Response

  1. You bring up a point which a lot of the media missed, which is to say that there is nothing wrong with particles that travel faster than light. The problem is *accelerating* a particle to a speed greater than light. Particles that travel faster than light have been proposed for a long time, and are called “tachyons”. They are actually forbidden to *decelerate* to a speed slower than light. The weird thing is that they should have negative mass. Not sure how that works!

    What is potentially exciting about this result is that it might provide some insight into yet another problem with the Standard Model, and help us really understand what a theory of physics beyond the Standard Model might look like.

    And yes, I find it really annoying as well when the media gives the impression that all previous work has to be thrown under the bus now. Agh, shoot me now.

    One picky thing I always am careful about with physics and science in general – instead of saying “confirmed” by experiment, I say “not falsified”. Subtle semantic difference but more correct I think.

    Really appreciate your intellectual curiosity, great post.

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