Why this neutrino business is not worrying

It may have been noticed over the past couple of days that Christian and creationist blogs have been in a bit of a tizzy. Recent findings at CERN have shown something interesting about neutrinos and the cosmic speed limit:

Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.

Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.

“To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.

An anomaly is a mild way of putting it.

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light — 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

This is exciting to the anti-science crowd because of a religious and/or ignorance mentality. That is, with religion we have doctrine and dogma and ingrained beliefs which are not to be challenged. If they are, it’s going to take some big steps to reconfigure things. Take the Catholic Church’s insistence that Earth was at the center of everything. It was embarrassing to find out just how wrong they were and they had to re-think a lot of their baseless declarations. But science isn’t so stubborn. And even with more secular ‘skeptics’ ignorance can be a problem. ‘What? Science has changed? But if it was right, it wouldn’t have changed!’

Of course, none of this is actually worrying in the least. Let’s assume something can go faster than light. That does bring about some significant changes, may have big research implications, and could lead to better insights into how the Universe works. But that doesn’t mean Einstein was wrong, no more than Einstein showed Newton was wrong. Yes, there are corrections, tweaks, re-writes, but that does not dismiss all the other stuff that is right. When Einstein and 1905 rolled around, apples didn’t stop falling from trees. Now that we have these CERN researchers in 2011, that doesn’t mean our GPS systems will stop working.

What I find so heartening about all this is that the majority of the articles I have seen have been done responsibly. For instance, from the article linked above:

If the experiment is independently repeated — most likely by teams in the United States or Japan — then it would require a fundamental rethink of modern physics…

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” [Antonio Ereditato] told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want: to think, to claim, to dream.”

And from an AP article:

Q. How likely is it that this finding is correct?

A. Experts are skeptical. Einstein’s relativity theory has withstood a lot of experimental tests over the years. The scientists who reported the finding say they’re still looking for flaws in their experimental procedures, and they’ve asked other labs to try to duplicate the results.

And another AP article:

The elegance of Einstein’s theory and its proven track record are why nearly every one of the more than a dozen physicists contacted by The Associated Press about the new findings has been cautious, skeptical or downright disbelieving.

Whether we’re talking about something as fundamental as Einstein’s theory or something as side-view as DEET, scientists again and again will say we must wait for confirmation, for scientific scrutiny. Physics isn’t going to get overturned based upon a single experiment. Yes, one experiment may lead to a turnover (and all the textbooks will be sure to note the original finding, not all the confirmations), but it takes repetition for something to be scientifically valid.

As one of my favorite bio professors once said, “Science is all about reproducibility. If you can’t reproduce your data, it’s all a load of horseshit.”


11 Responses

  1. I’m sorry, was someone worried about this?

  2. The religious blogosphere would have us believe the scientific community should be quivering right now.

  3. I’m religious and a blogger and I don’t expect you to quiver.

  4. Appealing to anecdotal evidence is one reason I think Mark Lindholm is a scrotebag.

  5. Defending your generalization is a bit scrote-like as well.

  6. I didn’t generalize anything (nor, to return to the topic, did I use any anecdotes). Many Christian blogs think this news is a hit against science. Religion does have dogma and doctrine, it does discourage challenges, and it does take a lot to make religions throw away its false beliefs. These are just facts.

  7. Consensus is conspiracy. We need to challenge everything. Contemporary thought blandly accepts all it is told and shown, so long as it doesn’t interfere with shopping or sex. A study of evolution has proved that flight is impossible: it is a scientific fact that despite the widespread availability of extension ladders, no part of the fossil record has been found in the air. After all, despite what they show on TV, have you ever met anyone who claims to have flown? No they all know someone who knows someone who claims to have done so.

  8. I shall have to let the birds know about this.

  9. Oh, they know.

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