Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Legal Watchdog: Faster than the speed of light?

Photo by Amy Kushner
I try to stick to law-related topics, but every once in a while I’ll delve into matters that are way over my head, like college sports and even physics.  In a post from the not-too-distant past—titled Time’s Up, Einstein—I wrote about how physicists created the concept of “dark matter” simply to keep Einstein’s theory of general relativity alive.  In other words, they made up this dark matter—matter that we can’t see or detect in any way—so that Einstein’s equations will continue to hold true.  The alternative would be to discard Einstein’s theories and start from scratch—an option “too scary to contemplate.”  But now, Einstein’s theories may have been dealt another blow: some things can move faster than the speed of light. 

The speed of light, Einstein had said, was the fastest speed at which anything could move.  If an object could move faster than that, then Einstein’s theories would be proved incorrect.  And now, subatomic particles have apparently exceeded what was previously thought to be the cosmic speed limit.  In a recent test at CERN, the European particle accelerator, “subatomic particles called neutrinos” were clocked moving faster than the speed of light.  While scientists still haven’t ruled out the possibility that their own error contributed to this finding, Einstein’s theories could, once again, be on the ropes.

Hopefully scientists won’t continue to cling to Einstein’s theories if it’s not warranted.  The hallmark of science has always been its willingness to discard what no longer works when new evidence comes along.  And toward that end, here’s an admittedly uneducated suggestion: abandon Einstein’s quest of unifying the quantum with the cosmic.  Why?  There are at least two reasons.  First, even though a unified theory would be “elegant”—a stated desire of theoretical physicists that seems completely irrational—there is no reason to believe that things on a tiny, subatomic scale would obey the same laws as things on a grand, universal scale.  And second, even if seeking a unification theory was the proper course of action, it appears that such an attempt is doomed to failure because one of the theories they’re attempting to unify is wrong.

Back to the drawing board. 

1 comment:

  1. And this is why Lawyers don't give physics lectures and why Physicists don't give law lectures. As for me, I'm neither a lawyer nor a physicist, but merely someone with an undergrad in biotechnology who has long been fascinated by physics and has followed this pretty extensively.

    A nitpick, and then a few more meaty criticisms.
    First the nitpick:
    It was OPERA at Gran Sasso, Italy, a collaboration of physicists studying neutrinos who discovered this effect -assuming it is real. They are several hundred miles from CERN. It's CERN that sends a beam of neutrinos to their detector, but otherwise CERN is not involved in this at all, and did not analyze the data or any of that.

    Now onward, as they say. For one, there are all sorts of ways that this could be fitted in to physics without undoing the great majority of relativity theory. After all, the measurements that led to Newton's theories being "overturned" (such as the deviations in the orbit of the planet Mercury) didn't suddenly mean that Force equaled something other than Mass times Acceleration. Indeed, for the cases of ordinary speeds and normal sizes Einstein's equations reduce to Newton's equations, and we still use Newton's equations to calculate satellite orbits and rocket launches to other planets. In short, E= MC squared would go nowhere (proof always trumps theory) and Einstein's theory would have been shown to be incomplete in some way , rather than disproven and useless. In total hundreds of experiments (and one can argue that thousands of tests have been done overall) on Einstein's relativity theories and they've all came up vindicating the theories. At those particle accelerators -such as CERNs Large Hadron Collider- they use relativity to not only construct the machine, but to predict what particles will be made by various collisions. And yes, they are looking for odd events and/or confirmations of theories. Well over 99.99 percent of the time they get neither, meaning that Einstein works perfectly. Heck, every atomic explosion is a vindication of most of the basic predictions. Given that and the fact that these measurements are of very hard to detect particles over incredibly short lengths of time (billionths of a second) you can see why the default scientific assumption is that
    A. They most likely did something wrong somewhere in their measurements or experimental setup or maybe with their atomic clocks. Perhaps there is a bug in the computer software they use to time these things. As you can guess there are literally dozens of sources of potential error.
    B. Even if we can't find out what they did wrong, we should at least run more tests and get independent verification for something so important.

    This experiment, if confirmed might suggest several things:
    A. The existence of extra dimensions, which conceivably the neutrinos could have traversed for a bit of their journey
    B. Perhaps the principle of Lorentz invariance is wrong. In simpler terms, maybe not all regions of space have exactly the same properties, perhaps, say a gravitational field might make a difference in terms of propogation of light speed.
    C. And so many more including some I do not pretend to understand:

    In any case, fascinating stuff. Too much of our technology works for relativity or quantum mechanics to be mostly wrong, however things are starting to heat up for hints of things beyond the standard physical models.