Friday, November 25, 2011

Faster Than the Speed of Light: Maybe

"How Many Neutrinos Does It Take to Screw Up Einstein?"
Adam Mann, Wired Science (November 18, 2011)

"Results from a second experiment uphold the observation that neutrinos are moving faster than the speed of light. The OPERA collaboration, which first reported the superluminal neutrinos in September, has rerun the experiment and detected 20 new neutrinos breaking Einstein's theoretical limit.

"The findings are heartening to anyone hoping to see a major physics revolution in their lifetime. But scientists, as ever, are being cautious, and it will take an independent replication of the results by another team to even begin convincing many of them....

"...Neutrinos are subatomic particles with hardly any mass that are able to fly through most matter as if it weren't there. Despite their negligible mass, if they were somehow able to exceed the speed-of-light limit set by Einstein's theory of special relativity, it would present a major head-scratcher to modern physicists...."

Universal Speed Limit: Maybe

Quite a few observations made more sense, when Albert Einstein's math showed how the universe works when really large amounts of mass and/or energy are concerned. Or really small amounts. It wasn't that Newtonian physics was "wrong," quite. What Einstein's work did was provide a mathematical model that fit the way some extreme situations work.

The speed of light being a limit comes from what happens when an object is speeded up. Accelerating the object pumps energy into it, energy is equivalent to mass, and as the object approaches the speed of light - the added mass/energy would approach an infinitely large value. There's a sort or reverse-ski-slope curve that goes along with some explanations, and that's almost another topic.

There's a not-entirely-technical discussion of speed of light and all that online. Several, actually, including:

Physics, Statistics, and the News

"...In their first experiment, the OPERA team used statistical analysis to show this situation was unlikely, but other scientists were not completely persuaded. The new experiment produced neutrinos in bunches over just three nanoseconds, far shorter than the faster-than-light anomaly. The results were the same: Neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds quicker than the speed of light. The findings were robust enough that members of the OPERA collaboration who had refused to sign on to the first paper were now willing to put their name on the new one....

"...Tommaso Dorigo, a physicist at CERN, noted on his blog that there are still other possible sources of error. For instance, the OPERA collaboration's clock might not have a fine enough resolution..."

By Monday, the Lemming noticed mainstream news picking up the story, sort of:
What's happening is that scientists who didn't do the original experiments are pointing out possible errors: inaccurate/imprecise observations; unjustified assumptions in how the observations were analyzed; maybe even errors in the math.

My guess is that some of the objections have a bit of NIH ("Not Invented Here") behind them, but that's just human nature. It'd be unusual, to say the least, if data and conclusions like what OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) published were greeted with a sort of triumphal ticker-tape parade.

That Wired article got it right:

Replicable Results

"...Ultimately, the only thing that would convince many in the field is if another team upholds the findings in an independent experiment. Plunkett, co-spokesperson for the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment at Fermilab, says that his collaboration expects to have results checking the OPERA findings in the spring of 2012."

There's a big difference between some crackpot claiming to have produced gem-quality diamonds from coleslaw: and the same crackpot publishing details of a replicable process for doing the same thing. Although I'd expect the person to file with the Patent office, and retain an attorney before publishing anything. More topics.

The point is that science is at least partly about doing something: and showing how the same thing can be done again. Ideally, by someone who isn't connected with the folks who did the first experiment.

That's what Fermilab will be trying to do.

The CERN facilities, by the way, produced neutrinos that OPERA picked up at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. If CERN sounds familiar, that's the outfit with the Large Hadron Collider: the research tool that some folks said would destroy us all. The Lemming got quite a few posts out of the serious and silly sides of the LHC stories.

Back to OPERA, neutrinos, and physics: If the neutrinos were traveling faster than light, it's not by all that much. Researchers are debating over numbers of nanoseconds. That's a whole lot shorter than the blink of an eye.

Does the Lemming 'believe' that neutrinos have been traveling faster than light? That's the wrong question, sort of. The Lemming thinks that:
  • OPERA has come up with some fascinating results
  • Fermilab will be trying to do the same thing
    • Other labs, too
      • Most likely
  • Physicists without labs like CERN or Fermilab are
    • Sensibly raising points to study
    • Not-so-sensibly applying the NIH principle
We may know more in 2012. and "2012" is yet another topic.

Somewhat-related posts:

2 comments:

Brigid said...

Missing a period: "before publishing anything More topics."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Brigid.

Oops.

Found, fixed: and thanks!

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