Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Limits of the "Cosmic Speed Limit"

No doubt you've seen the news of the reported observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Aside from throwing out a century-old law of physics, it sounds like a credible result. Of course, the result will have to be duplicated by other groups before we count it confirmed.

LuboŇ° Motl explores some possible measuring errors. I myself am rather doubtful that there's a problem with GPS. After all it's the military that put it up and for these guys accuracy is a matter of life and death. On the other hand, the military could for security purposes be leaving in some consistent errors in the interpretation of GPS for us civilians (a natural analog of the "GPS blurring" they removed some years ago).

For my part, I don't have expertise to evaluate their experimental procedure or analysis, but I can communicate some pointers about what it might mean.

First, it would likely be good news, because it means new physics. The Standard Model of particle physics works, but there's widespread dissatisfaction with it. It produces all the right numbers, but it fails to provide a deeper understanding, or at least the unification that physicists have come to associate with it. (Observed by Lee Smolin in The Trouble with Physics, but it's hardly unique to him—we physicists are always seeking after the new.)

Second, to understand what this result could mean, it helps to step back and examine the terms that we use. Notice that what we mean by such concepts as "distance" and "speed" are purely electromagnetic (EM). Phenomenally, it's through our knowledge of the hard surfaces of solid bodies we establish distance and even the passage of time. And of course, another unquestioned assumption is that light is a "thing" or body, in the exact same sense as other bodies. People have lost sight of the fact (no pun intended) that light is that by which we see, not that which we see, except in a different sense of the word.

We have no direct experience of strong and weak nuclear forces; our experiences of these are mediated by electromagnetic interactions. We do experience gravity directly, but would have no notion of space to be aware of it, were it not for EM. There's no way to shield gravity or to create zones of gravitational neutrality, because there is no second gravitational "charge." In fact the entirety of what we mean by force (from Newton's Laws of Motion) as such is entirely EM.

Neutrinos, while not vector bosons, in some sense carry the weak force, that is, they only interact weakly. The weak force is supposed to have been unified with EM, but meanwhile previous results from CERN seem to be endangering the plausibility of that argument.

It could be that the "speed of light" only applies to electromagnetism. Regardless of the durability of the OPERA result, it's good to remember how small our universe of experience actually is, even augmented by scientific apparatus.

Geoff Brumfiel, "Particles break light-speed limit: Neutrino results challenge cornerstone of modern physics," Nature (22 September 2011).

The OPERA Collaboraton, "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam" Arxive (22 Sep 2011) arXiv:1109.4897v1 [hep-ex].


Seth said...


This is a comment as well as a question!

First off, I enjoy your blog immensely. I'm not a physicist at all, actually I'm a pipe organist who has now begun formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood. I found your blog quite by accident when I googled "the three degrees of abstraction" and one of the hits was to one of your blog posting which contained a diagram by Maritain.

Anyways, I never realized just how much we would discuss physics and science at seminary and sometimes I feel I would like some more background information about certain concepts: Newton, relativity, string theory, scientism. Would you, as someone who is much more knowledgeable than I, have and books, articles, etc, that I might be able to grasp but that also wouldn't require too much time to read? The seminary is full of reading and I don't want to have to neglect the happy relationships I'm building with Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant!

Thanks again for your blog. It has led me into some nice moments of deep thinking but also to some quiet moments of prayer and awe when I consider this amazing Creation that Love has given to us.

God bless you in your work. Please pray for me in mine!

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks for your comments, Seth. It's good to know someone out there is reading.

I'm glad you're developing a happy relationship with Aristotle and Aquinas. Please don't get too friendly with Kant. The man is a terrible host and barely acknowledges the existence of anyone else (see Stanley Jaki's Means to Message).

Aristotle's Physics is key to being well educated. There are a couple good recommendations for ancillary reading on the Wikipedia page. Glen Coughlin's translation of the Physics includes a number of excellent essays that compare that work with modern science.

I enjoy immensely Hans Jonas's The Phenomenon of Life, but it might be too philosophical for most folks. A popular alternative is Leon Kass's The Hungry Soul. Other suggestions:

* Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
* C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
* Anthony Rizzi, The Science before Science
* Mariano Artigas, The Mind of the Universe

There's a recent collection of essays on ideologies that Christians face these days: Disorientation, edited by John Zmirak. It contains a good essay on scientism.

The works I've listed so far are more on the philosophical side. It's difficult to find authors who are knowledgeable about science, write well, and have some philosophical sanity. Werner Heisenberg's Physics and Philosophy is good on all counts.

Leonard Susskind is a very good mathematical physicist and writer, but philosophically a lunatic (not to mention a string theorist). I've read his Cosmic Landscape and it conveys the physics well.

Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics is good. He is appropriately skeptical of string theory. Smolin's definitely searching for something; whether he will find it in the small compass of modernity to which he confines himself is highly doubtful.

If I think of others, I will post.

Thank you for your prayers; ne assured they are reciprocated.


Crude said...

For the record, your blog is a now and then stop for me. Only because you only post now and then!

But it's enjoyable and educational. Thanks for it.

RP said...

We may not know the fastest speed in the universe but we know the slowest: your posts/month.