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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Faster than the speed of mock


I’m crushed. I can only hope that their results turn out to be wrong. Apparently, the ICARUS experiment has been unable to replicate the results of an earlier experiment in which neutrinos appeared to move faster than light. This makes me sad. While I don’t pretend for a moment to understand a great deal about particle physics, I do understand a little bit about interesting story concepts, and faster-than-light particles open up a whole host of potential story ideas.
This isn’t to say you can’t write a ripping science fiction yarn involving zippy “tachyons” (the Star Trek: TNG favourite) or “dashites” or whatever you want to call them, but it’s a lot nicer to be able to ground your sci-fi dreams in the harsh realities of science. And if the ICARUS people are right, speed-of-light is absolute.
When the original broke-the-speed-limit OPERA experiment results were announced, back in September of last year, scientists everywhere gave a collective “pffft” of disbelief. I get it. It’s their job to be skeptical. A gullible scientist has very little value to society. But reading their reactions I felt there was rather more scorn than curiousity. It wasn’t “This experiment flies in the face of all that we know, and will require stringent confirmation.” It was “This experiment flies in the face of all that we know, so it can’t be true.”
When scientists use the language of religious fanatics to argue their cases, it demeans the entire process. The examples of discoveries mocked, ridiculed, and then ultimately proven correct are legion. See the Doppler effect, Bakker’s idea about warm-blooded dinosaurs, and nonEuclidean geometry as just a few cases. (A Google search will net you hundreds more.)
All I’m saying is that the universe is an amazing, astounding place. Every time we think we’ve dug down to the root cause of something, the thing we discover splits open and winged monkeys (metaphorical winged monkeys, but wouldn’t it be cool if they discover the Higgs boson and it IS a winged monkey?) come flapping out. It’s conceivable there is a finite limit to knowledge, that eventually we’ll find out the answers to everything (it isn’t 42, sorry), but we aren’t anywhere close to that point yet. So why can’t neutrinos (or something else?) move faster than the speed of light?
Don’t quote Einstein, either. First of all, he might be wrong. Second, he never claimed the speed of light was an absolute barrier that can never be broken. All he proved was that you can never ACCELERATE past that speed; there’s nothing in his formula denying the existence of particles ALREADY moving lightspeed or faster.
Neutrinos might not be breaking the light barrier. But let’s show some respect for honest results gained ethically and shared broadly, shall we? The poor OPERA people have taken enough hits.

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