Note Well:
This blog is intended for rational audiences. Its contents are the personal opinions of its author. If you quote from this blog, which you
may do with attribution, please assume personal accountability for any consequences of mischaracterizing these expressed intentions.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Let's not get ahead of ourselves …

A simulated event in the CMS detector, a colli...Image via Wikipedia

"Big Al was wrong, once — back when he declared that his inclusion of the cosmological constant was a blunder." — TheBigHenry

"99.999…% of the time, if you bet against Big Al, you lose." — TheBigHenry

"Only two things are certain, taxes and Big Al, and I'm not sure about the former." — TheBigHenry
Related source » Gone in 60 nanoseconds
[This related source is recommended in its entirety.]

“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. […] 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. The fundamental axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition on speed faster than light. Einstein’s predictions about how time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence. As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time dilates, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And nothing ever has. Until two weeks ago Thursday. […] Not that there aren’t already mysteries in physics. Neutrinos themselves are ghostly particles that travel through nearly everything unimpeded. (Thousands [more like trillions — TBH] are traversing your body as you read this.) But that is simplicity itself compared to quantum mechanics, whose random arbitrariness so offended Einstein that he famously objected that God does not play dice with the universe. […] But if quantum mechanics was a challenge to human sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their undoing. It means that Einstein’s relativity — a theory of uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100 years — is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.” [emphasis added]
— Charles Krauthammer, October 6, 2011 (

"Wrong" — an absolute term that is frequently and, sometimes, absurdly misapplied, as in Mr. Krauthammer's breathless account (above). Charles is a learned man (MD) as well as a syndicated political columnist (and a fervent baseball fan, to boot). But in this instance, he allowed his columnist's enthusiasm for the spectacular to get the best of him.

Conventional wisdom has it that any new scientific theory, which purports to accommodate some new scientific findings, completely invalidates its predecessor scientific theory. In most cases, however, it does no such thing. What it does do is extend scientific explanations for physical phenomena into new regimes of energy, momentum, and/or scales of distance and time. Thus, Einstein's special and general theories of relativity did not invalidate Maxwell's electromagnetism nor Newton's gravity. Relativity extended the earlier classical theories into new scales or regimes of measurement.

Our current theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the “standard model” of subatomic particles are not in danger of becoming "deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong" as Charles Krauthammer gushes in his article. Nor is "everything we know about the universe" about to be labeled "WRONG". That is just plain wrongheaded and at least mildly hysterical thinking.

Quite possibly, the ongoing experiments by the LHC at CERN have (or will have) encountered never-before witnessed phenomena, in view of the ultra-high-energy regimes being investigated there. The apparent violation of the lightspeed limit by neutrinos, which are thought to have negligible albeit non-zero (positive) mass, is clearly an anomaly that at present can not be explained in traditional terms. But the explanations that will eventually be forthcoming will most likely not require our abandonment of "everything we know about the universe".

For example, neutrinos were originally postulated to exist in order to satisfy the long accepted physical conservation laws of energy and momentum, in lieu of relinquishing the latter laws themselves. Subsequently, neutrinos were further characterized with slightly positive mass and, furthermore, 3 flavors (electron, muon, and tau, with successively greater mass for each flavor). Most recently, neutrinos have been observed to have the ability to oscillate between flavors, which, in turn, not only supports the proposition that their mass is non-zero, but also the proposition that they have the ability to alter their mass (by way of oscillating between flavors)!

This interesting anomaly-in-need-of-explanation might be explained without resorting to substantive modification of special relativity. One possible conjecture, though perhaps outside the realm of "everything we have learned thus far about the laws of our universe", is that neutrinos have the ability to transform themselves or oscillate not only between flavors having different positive mass, but also between one or more of the known flavors and a tachyonic flavor, however briefly (in terms of real time), which would prohibit them (in that guise) from slowing down to subluminal speeds! Highly unlikely and grossly speculative, you say? Of course it is, and I am not entirely serious in proposing it. But compared to a bona fide violation of special relativity, it could happen …

In any case, whatever the ultimate explanation for this anomaly turns out to be, it is not likely to invalidate everything we already know, but only to add to it.

 h/t Theo

Post 1,717 Let's not get ahead of ourselves …

No comments:

Post a Comment