HAVE FUN WITH THIS! EINSTEIN DID!
It is inevitable that the scientific knowledge gained from busting apart the fundamental particles of matter will have useful functions down the road. But for the moment there are few practical applications involved in revving up subatomic particles and smashing them into each other at ever greater energies using gigantic machines just to see what parts come flying off---but it’s great fun to smash stuff! Same goes for shooting neutrinos at high speeds just to see how they behave and what they are made of.
Part of the fun is to speculate…to be a philosopher about this…because with these subatomic particles we are in the realm of deep philosophical questions about the very nature of life itself. And this is equal opportunity fun! Religionists can capitalize on the work of science by inserting their favorite deity at any point and declaring God responsible. That’s what I would do…
Albert Einstein was a philosopher as well as a physicist---and many of the breakthrough portions of his brilliant theories of relativity were inspired by philosophizing about the latest known scientific facts of the time (early 1900s), the measured speed of light and the immense energies tied up within the material world.
Einstein did extensive mathematical calculations (which he had checked for accuracy by other mathematicians) but parts of his theories are purely philosophical, almost devoid of math. What distinguished Einstein was that he had a different view---a different way of looking at the Universe. Albert Einstein literally visualized himself “riding” on a photon of light at the extraordinary speed of 671 million miles per hour---just to get a feel for what it would be like!
Einstein was a fun guy---just look at the pictures of him! He was the first scientist pop culture hero. Einstein was also a humanitarian and not afraid to speak his mind on matters involving Human nature and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. [He was not, however, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb!”] His place in history is secure for the ages!
Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist---he figured things out. Those physicists who verified his theories through experiments are called research or experimental physicists. It was research physicists who may have discovered a particle moving at slightly faster than the speed of light---in apparent contradiction of Einstein.
EINSTEIN BUILT UPON NEWTON’S THEORIES -
Sir Isaac Newton was well aware of the shortcomings of his theory of gravity---yet his basic ideas are still accurate enough to be used to guide and navigate space craft through our Solar System. Don’t forget that Einstein’s theories were based upon considerations of the most extreme circumstances---the fantastic speed of light, the vast distances of the Universe, the immense gravity of large suns, galaxies and black holes, and the enormous energies bound up so tightly within tiny atoms. Einstein found that the closer objects traveled to light-speed the more they contracted in size, the less they “aged” and the heavier they became. He also found that space is not just something that objects travel through but something that warps and stretches with the passage and presence of objects. Einstein also found that gravity is not instantaneous but exerts its force at the speed of light. These findings could well be modified in the future. However, just as with Newton, if Einstein’s ideas are superseded it will take nothing away from his true, universal and eternal genius. The differences between Einstein’s and Newton’s theories are subtle and required extraordinarily accurate measurements to verify Einstein‘s refinements. And it will require an even greater degree of accuracy to prove Einstein wrong---if, indeed, he is proven wrong in this. He has, of course, been wrong before.
“EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS REQUIRE EXTRAORDINARY EVIDENCE“ - Carl Sagan
…and extraordinary accuracy! The velocity of neutrinos that might have exceeded light-speed was measured in nanoseconds. We are talking about streams of neutrinos apparently exceeding the speed of light by a factor of nanoseconds. According to Wikipedia, “a nanosecond is one billionth of a second. One nanosecond is to one second as one second is to 31.7 years.” The margin of error in this observation is just 10 nanoseconds. The measurement is within the range of accepted probability by 2 nanoseconds. Slim probability but scientifically significant.
If this measurement is correct, those little neutrinos should have gained infinite mass. Maybe they did and it was just an inconsequential blip. Perhaps exceedingly small and lightweight particles can exceed the speed of light for a few nanoseconds. It is, after all, postulated by the newest kid on the block, String Theory, that the very fabric of Spacetime itself gets “ripped” now and then but repairs itself with a reconfiguring of the basic little, “folded” dimensional shapes (“Calabi Yau”) and the wonder of vibrating strings “wrapping” and reforming around the “rip” or “tear.” [Watch PBS - November 2, 2011 8:00 PM (Alaska time) - physicist and String Theory-guy Brian Greene investigates the “Fabric of the Cosmos.”] Some scientists have speculated that the speedy little neutrinos could have traveled through one of the many "dimensions" being postulated these days in physics, and did not necessarily exceed the speed of light.
SCIENCE WORKS LIKE NO OTHER DISCIPLINE -
If the recent finding that the speed of light may have been exceeded turns out to be true, one implication of this discovery is that Einstein’s Special Theory Of Relativity is wrong when it says that no object with mass can ever go faster than the speed of light. The scientists at CERN may have disproved Einstein‘s Special Theory Of Relativity!
If true, this finding could bring great renown to the team of scientists at CERN: the European Organization for Nuclear Research. This group of scientists would have proven Einstein wrong! It would be historical. They would be famous. Nobel Prize famous!
But science doesn’t work like any other institution. Not only must these findings be replicated and proven, but---although scientists are just as competitive as anyone else---the CERN group has probably not even thought about crowing over their findings. Rather, these researchers have requested that other labs attempt to prove or disprove their results. If these results are verified, then CERN will get credit for the discovery, but for now they are as humbled and dumbfounded as everyone else.
Only two other labs elsewhere in the world possess the means to replicate (and prove or disprove) the CERN findings: Fermilab in the U.S. and a Japanese installation that has been impacted by the tsunami and earthquake. Unfortunately, the measuring systems at Fermilab in the U.S. are not as precise as the European CERN and cannot be upgraded for some time, according to Fermilab scientist Rob Plunkett. That hasn’t stopped other scientists from speculating about these tentative findings, however.
Drew Baden, chairman of the physics department at the University of Maryland, said it is far more likely that the CERN findings are the result of measurement errors or some kind of fluke. Tracking neutrinos is very difficult, he said. “This is ridiculous what they’re putting out,” he said. “Until this is verified by another group, it’s flying carpets. It’s cool, but…”
If the European findings are correct, "this would change the idea of how the universe is put together," Columbia's Greene said. But he added: "I would bet just about everything I hold dear that this won't hold up to scrutiny."
SCIENCE IS DUE FOR A SHAKEUP -
The “Standard Model” of Quantum Physics is one of the most successful scientific theories of all time---virtually all of its predictions were proven eerily and precisely correct by experiments to within a billionth of accuracy. Scientists are understandably attempting to use more advanced math to discover new theories that would refine current understanding, answer outstanding questions and “unite” Einstein’s theories with quantum theory---which involves integrating the force of gravity with the other three fundamental forces that Quantum Physics has apparently already successfully united in terms of their mutual interactions. String Theory is now trying to unite all four of the basic forces into the fabled “Theory of Everything.“
GOOD SHIFTS-BAD SHIFTS -
Science is regularly and most tiresomely being challenged by economic forces such as energy companies, industrial polluters and climate deniers; by socio-cultural forces such as biblical creationists and “intelligent design” fans; by political lackeys and lobbying groups and organizations uniting various combinations of the above proponents of anti-science. Many of these anti-science efforts are well-funded by private economic interests. Some of these folks couldn’t do science to save their souls---but they know enough about power-politics and the petty fears of the populace to choke off funding for science and science education.
Unfortunately, working scientists are very focused and have a propensity not to take economic, political and cultural challenges seriously enough. On a technical level, the inane challenges to accepted science mounted by special-interest groups has been almost beneath the notice of real, practicing scientists as pertains to their disciplines---they just don‘t have time for such nonsense. So, scientists have a habit of not taking it very seriously when non-scientists and especially really dopey un-scientists make illogical claims.
Now, however, there might be one of those seismic shifts coming (as they always do) from within science itself. This could be somewhat akin to Copernicus positing the Sun being at the center of our Galaxy instead of the Earth. Or Galileo providing proof of Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis. Or Newton describing universal gravitation and laws of motion which apply to apples and Planets alike. Or Einstein developing his Special Theory Of Relativity because Newtonian mechanics were no longer sufficient to reconcile the laws of classical mechanics with the laws of the electromagnetic field---and then extending the principle of relativity to gravity in his General Theory Of Relativity. Or the quantum revolution by Niels Bohr and others showing with Quantum Physics and the uncertainty principle that an entirely different set of rules governs matter on subatomic scales.
The real challenges to science---as opposed to challenges against science by so-called “skeptics“---arise from within science itself. Scientists are Human and they do become complacent---and they tend to cling to their old ideas---so maybe they do need a good swift kick from other scientists. If we are in one of those times of “seismic shift” in science then I find that extremely exciting. If not, science is still the most exciting (and accurate) thing out there when it comes to exploring and explaining reality.
The U.S. is already undergoing a shift in science---but not a good or exciting one. Just a month ago (September 30, 2011) the U.S. “powered down” its main “atom smasher”---Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois. This marks the end of over a quarter-century of U.S. dominance in high-energy particle physics. Europe is now taking over. This is thanks to our U.S. Congress which cut off the funding needed to complete construction of the Superconducting Super Collider, dealing a heavy blow to particle physics research in America. The Superconducting Super Collider would have been three times more powerful than Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, which is now the most advanced atom smasher in the World.
Though beset by high-costs and the usual waste, the Superconducting Super Collider probably perished because many Americans just don’t understand, don’t desire to know or just don’t care about some of the most outstanding questions regarding the true nature of their very own existence. [Of course, we are also broke!] These attitudes will not only interfere with our investigation of the fundamental nature of matter---but will also heavily impact our future technological innovations and economic development.
SCIENCE MARCHES ON---OR AT LEAST MAKES DO -
Physicists at the U.S. lab will now concentrate on smaller, more focused projects---such as building intense proton beams---while the Europe’s Large Hadron Collider takes over the heavy lifting at the highest energy levels.
"Nothing lasts forever at the edge of science," said Pier Oddone, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois (referring to the cut off of funds which resulted in, among other things, the powering down of Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator).
"We need to move on to those aspects of physics where we can put our mark."
Oddone said Europe has outspent the United States by a factor of three, and the United States now has to be very clever and define very carefully how it uses its resources.
"I think we can maintain a leadership position in the world. We are going to not be where we were 30 years ago where we led in every domain of particle physics, but we are going to lead in a narrower domain," he said in a hopeful telephone interview with “Science News.”
The highest-profile project on that front is an effort in the U.S. to confirm the startling discovery at CERN of particles that move faster than the speed of light. U.S. scientists at Fermilab will now attempt to verify or refute this new faster-than-light finding as part of its MINOS experiment (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search). If it can be verified that even such a miniscule particle as the ghostly neutrino has exceeded the speed of light, it will turn modern physics on its head.
The American physicists at Fermilab are using a smaller collider to shoot neutrino particles right through the Earth’s crust to a collector 450 miles away in a mine shaft in Minnesota. [Neutrino particles are highly interesting because, just for starters, they go through just about anything.]
There is also some hope that the remaining, unexamined data from the closed-down main Fermilab collider may hold evidence of the elusive “Higgs boson”---the fundamental particle that is supposed to unify all the forces and would mean a sure Nobel Prize for whoever finds it. There is a tantalizing “bump” in the data accumulated from the now shut down Fermilab main collider and much of it still remains to be analyzed.
IT AIN’T ALL FUN -
The collisions of fundamental particles at high speeds produce incredible “sprays” of various parts flying in all directions. But physicists can’t just stand around gawking at the colorful high-speed events produced by atom smashers. These colliders produce large amounts of information that must be carefully analyzed. For instance, the new European Large Hadron Collider will produce an estimated 50 petabytes of data by 2012, which Scientific American says is the “equivalent of the complete works of Shakespeare 10 billion times over.”
So, scientists are waiting and watching to find out if this breaking of the Universal Speed Limit really occurred. And, if it did, what it really means. In the meantime, the Universe is wondrous enough…and life will go on as usual for most of us. Still, if only we possessed the capability to smash matter into even smaller bits using even bigger hammers… What fun that would be!
- Rudy Wittshirk