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Scientific Breakthrough News of the Day

Friday, September 23, 2011, 14:26 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Albert EinsteinLate yesterday afternoon, Ann Althouse linked to an interesting article that, briefly and in layperson’s terms, revealed that about a century’s worth of scientific understanding might just be kaput. I’m not talking about trendy “settled science” stuff like the current anthropogenic global warming hysteria or the 1970s’ anthropogenic global cooling mania. I’m talking about Einsteinian relativity.

CERN scientists using a 1300-ton particle detector have measured particles travelling faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, this discovery could invalidate Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity and revolutionize physics.

[ . . . ]

The 3-year experiment timed about 16,000 neutrino packets launched from CERN facilities in Geneva, travelling through Earth and arriving 2.43 milliseconds later to the subterranean facilities of Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory. There, the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (the OPERA particle detector) recorded the hits.

When scientists discovered that the particles were arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light—with only a 10 nanosecond error margin—they freaked out.

[ . . . ]

The news are so extraordinary that other physicists are already saying this is impossible.

Indeed. I’m picturing a roomful of physicists having an existential crisis.

Now, please realize that I have neither the knowledge, understanding, nor interest to comment on this in any substantive way. I’ll leave that to physicists like the Den Father, some of my college classmates, and Queen guitarist Brian May. (No, really.) So feel free to point out one or more of the dozens of inaccuracies in what I’m about to say.

My rudimentary understanding of special relativity is that as an object approaches the speed of light, time slows and mass increases such that theoretically, at the speed of light, time stops and mass is infinite. That sounds impossible, which I think is the whole point: that nothing of mass can travel at or faster than light speed. (Sorry, Star Trek fans.)

That’s why the CERN findings are so extraordinary. They suggest, to put it in ridiculously over-simplified terms, that the great Albert Einstein was wrong. Chew on that for a moment. Einstein might have formulated his relativity theories only a century ago, but they so transformed humanity’s understanding of the physical universe that this latest discovery could represent a shift of Copernican proportions. It’s mind-numbing.

Of course, maybe the CERN folks screwed something up. And even if they didn’t, Einstein’s theories weren’t formulated and articulated overnight and they won’t be dismantled overnight, if ever. But the mere presence of a doubt is bit news. It’s moments like this at which we should remember that no matter how much we know, we haven’t even scratched the surface. As I commented in an email to the Den Father, I imagine that every time we unlock some new secret of the universe and start patting ourselves on our collective cerebral cortex, God laughs and says, “Wanna bet?”

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