Friday, September 23, 2011

Take a damn physics course

Recently there has been a shocking new result in the world of physics - neutrinos have been measured to be moving faster than the speed of light.  The speed of light in a vacuum is known to be 299, 792, 458 mps and the measured speed of the neutrinos at CERN was 299, 798, 454 mps Source.  The difference is incredibly tiny of course but the implications for physics if in fact things can travel faster than the speed of light is staggeringly large.  I would posit that staggeringly large is a huge understatement, in fact, and I need a long string of very, massively, and other such descriptors to convey how important that would be.  For example, it creates potential problems with the very idea of causality - that effects follow causes.

Like much of the reporting on cutting edge physics though the actual articles you find out there are ridiculous and make me cringe.  There are prestigious papers reporting that E=MC^2 tells us that the speed of light is the maximum possible speed (argh, why?), that E=MC^2 will be overturned by this result (preposterous) and other such drivel.  The problem with most of the articles out there is they have no idea what is going on so they get some credulous sound bytes from some guy in a lab coat, type out the physics formula best known among laypeople, slap on some pictures of Einstein because he has crazy hair and call it a day.  Why bother reading a wikipedia article on the speed of light when you can just fill the page with funny pictures of old time physicists and off topic formulas?

Fagh.  While it is true that this result *could* be the biggest in 20 years in physics it is far, far more likely that there is some tiny error in measurement or modelling that leads to this vanishingly small difference in measured speeds.  Even if it is true, there is every reason to think that some other strange thing allows this discrepancy to occur that will not result in any significant rewrites to our understanding of relativity.  Just like when the media reported that the Large Hadron Collider was going to create a black hole this event is being spun and misreported to such an extent that you can hardly see the original idea from the ridiculous rhetoric.  This is Science, not Religion, and as such everybody is going to look at the new data carefully and decide rationally if old results and ideas need to be rethought or discarded.  Those who want to crack out the champagne for "Einstein was wrong day" need to wait a little bit longer yet.


  1. If this is, in fact, true, the least interesting (but most likely ) consequence is that we might just update C to a new value, according to a theoretical physicist friend of mine.

    C isn't *technically* the speed of light. It can also be interpreted as the fastest information (causality) can travel. We just assume light is the fastest such thing. Find a faster value? Just bump up C.

    This is a big over-simplification of course, and it's a paperwork nightmare to reinterpret so much experimental data based on a tweaked value, so let's hope something more interesting is going on!

  2. "We don't allow faster than light neutrinos in here, says the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar."

  3. Sad to admit, but I laughed :)