Fibbing, slower-than-light neutrinos and some science fiction nostalgia

[Particle Collision]
In this simulated particle collision from CERN, the secret to the universe is clearly seen somewhere in the middle...
Well, word is that the recent CERN experiments that showed neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light may be flawed, possibly by an uncalibrated fiber optic cable.

This should not be too much of a surprise, as the speed of light as a limit has been so thoroughly tested and demonstrated that it was much more likely that the difference was a systemic problem with measurement than with the physics, but the possibility was tantalizing, to be sure. Even, according to the Wall Street Journal article linked to above, Jim Al-Khalili — the physics professor at the University of Surrey in England who promised to eat his boxers (underwear, not dogs) live on television if the faster-than-light result proved true — said he was a little disappointed he would not have to dine on his shorts. “The public humiliation would have been a small price to pay for a revolution in physics,” the WSJ quotes him as saying. Science’s tendency towards self-correction is hard at work, which is good.

The idea that the problem may turn out to be a faulty fiber optic cable inspired some nostalgic reflection for me. Not that I have ever botched my own faster-than-light experiment — rather, the nostalgia was due to a science fiction short story I wrote in high school as a part of my junior or senior English class. Want to hear about it? Great! Here’s the gist of it. (Of course, I know some of you said, “No way!” so in your case I would recommend closing your browser now.)

In the story, the protagonist was a genius scientist who had an idea for a Theory of Everything, which would be developed and tested using data from a monster particle accelerator encircling the earth in space.  (Needless to say, it was set in the future.)  The data comes in, the theory is finished, and the result is one simple equation that unifies physics and provides an “explanation” for how everything came to be.  Then, over the years, the equation begins to be referred to as “The Equation” and people begin attaching a sense of divine reverence to it, as if it were, somehow, the Creator, and effects begin to be felt in religion and society that leave our protagonist uncomfortable. So, he sets out anew to disprove the very theory he created — a task complicated by a conveniently drama-enhancing disease that ravages his body, a la Stephen Hawking. [Actually, I may not be remembering this correctly, and he may have been afflicted from childhood. In either this story or another one, I had such a person who was unable to communicate with anyone around him until a communications system was designed that tapped directly into the spine at which time the individual was discovered to be a scientific genius–that fellow might be this story’s protagonist, but it’s been, you know, three or four years since I was in high school, so give me a break.]

In the end, he dies before he is able to dismantle his theory, but it is later discovered that the result was, indeed, flawed due to a small, previously unnoticed problem with the accelerator, itself, which contaminated the results. I can’t recall, but the debunking of The Equation may have led to societal unrest — I don’t think I pursued it that far (and probably felt that I had written enough to get an “A,” which was, surely, a big part of my goal as an effectively-trained slavish grade-seeker in the public schools).

The story was a bit bigger than its britches conceptually, but at the same time, the biggest literary influence on me at that time was Frank Herbert’s Dune series — the poster child for overwrought (def’n 2) sci-fi concepts, methinks — and it had me thinking big.

So, today’s story about the possibly problematic fiber optic cable caused a bit of nostalgia, all the more since I pictured in my mind the globe-encircling particle collider in the story to look rather fiber-optic-ish.

Nostalgia aside, Solomon tells us in Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” So, here’s to hoping that this little neutrino episode, however it turns out, moves whomever it may move to continue pursuing the glory of kings at CERN. If a few more people have learned about relativity and such through this incident, errant nor not, it’s probably been a good thing.

16 thoughts on “Fibbing, slower-than-light neutrinos and some science fiction nostalgia

  1. Michael O'Byrne

    It appears that there was a flaw all right, but it is interesting when scientists think they’ve discovered something of
    major conseqeunce the world hears about right away. However they are not so quick to announce there might have been a mistake nor is the announcement proclaimed to any great furore. The proponents of evolutions have often announced the discovery of alleged missing links with inescapable announcements. Yet when the supposed missing link is found not be so any admittance of it is almost mute. For all their ultra-intelligence – their soaring intellects and IQ’s that soar far above the common man – these smart men are lacking in true knowledge and are therefore lacking in understanding of what really counts.

  2. TeapotTempest

    As I was reading a recent article about “Cosmology: the dark side of the universe” from the Economist (2/18/12),, I had to control my anger and amazement at how many assumptions, theories,”tweaks” made-up far-out concepts scientists have to dream up “to understand a mystery as perplexing as any that faces physics”. One author of a paper says that “vacuum energy is vast, but it is almost all hidden away in extra spatial dimensions”. And that “these extra dimension are curled up so tightly that they elude detection”. Uh huh. okay. And another scientist from the University of Washington has developed “the world’s most sensitive (and no doubt most expensive) torsion balance” to do… what?… measure a tiny gravitational tug that causes a disk to rotate slightly by a whopping billionth of a degree. Give me a break!. About the only thing that moves these people is the astronomical amounts of money we give them to study this stuff. $620 Million from the NSF and the DOE. Two space telescopes, costing $1Billion… EACH!. And when will they be launched? 7-10 years down the road, no doubt after many “adjustments” to that estimated budget. And what about that torsion balance experiment? Those scientists are still waiting for it to turn, “but the experiment continues”. We don’t have too much longer to to wait to put all these silly and expensive “experiments” away and get some real answers about the so-called dark side of the universe and the way things really work from the One who designed and created it all. (Job 42:3-6). I’m looking forward to that time.

  3. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Michael: I’ve learned something about the nature of intelligence since I found out just where mine really stands. It’s not the degree, but the kind of intelligence that many of these people have that really makes the difference. Trust me, in some kinds of intelligence you probably are far stronger than many scientists are, and I am not speaking of your conversion. Standard IQ tests until recently measured only three kinds of intelligence. There are at least eight, nine if you include the ability to ask the Ultimate Questions of Life, the Universe and Everything.

    Many of these people are naturally weak in interpersonal and/or intrapersonal intelligence in the first place and often have never been taught the importance of developing it or them (whereas they insist that natural ethicists and amateur logicians like me learn how to use what comes so naturally to them). And of course they don’t have the right “plug-in” to their natural existential intelligence, which “plug-in” is the Holy Spirit (but then, almost no one does). So many such people are not exactly driven to “be authentic” and give equal weight to their successes and their failures. There are shining examples to the contrary, and they’re what give science and scientists a good name, but we of the General Public don’t hear enough about such examples.

    Is it any surprise in that light (put some of the blame on science journalists and editors, however) that some such people proclaim their strengths and try to hide their weaknesses? Alleged Discovery: YEAH, BABY! 😀 Solid Disproof: ::: oops ::: Well, creationists (and religionists generally) do the same thing too often too. Eating humble pie (main ingredient: crow) is never easy for any of us.

  4. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Mr. Smith: How many years have you been waiting to tell someone outside whatever qualifies as your Inner Circle, that story? 😀 (Wait until I tell you some time about my speculative fiction. It might’ve been nice to understand hard science as well as you did, but I had my own knowledge and abilities to bring to the table and there’s plenty of room in the SF bin for every kind of looney there is. 😉 )

  5. I really haven’t been waiting. It was just an assignment in high school. 🙂 I think I’ve mentioned it to my wife in the past, but only because that is her role as the Trapped Listener of Wallace Smith Trivia Items That Randomly Come to Mind.

  6. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Michael: Thank you. And now I can admit that allegedly, I’m in the same rarefied IQ atmosphere as an Albert Einstein. But not every facet of my nine intelligences is that quick off the dime. For the others to work at that level I have to S.L.O.W. D.O.W.N. and give them time. And of course I don’t have his personality type or his training, and therefore, am not coming up with the Reconciliation of Quantum Mechanics with Special and General Relativity any time soon. 😉

    Which brings me to TexasBorn. High-energy physicists are working with things that take expensive equipment to run. And they deal with some of the greatest mysteries in the physical universe. You allude to at least two of them and here’s one. Electrons don’t whiz around the atomic nuclei in the simplistic orbits many people think they do, thanks to an early model of the atom (and of subsequent popular cartoons). They’re constantly whacking into something so tiny, and yet so powerful, that it practically defies description. (In the old days of magical thinking, they’d try to explain them as tiny little deities. They are just that powerful.) And apparently the only way to explain the other properties of whatever-they-are, is by mathematical modeling that infers that space has multiple dimensions (many more than the three we live and work in on our “macro” scale).

    Now that’s a child’s explanation by someone who barely understands what’s going on and remembers not even half of it, but I for one wouldn’t want that knowledge simply handed to me on a platter. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out,” Solomon says. Pure research always expands the already incredible number of things those with eyes to see can praise God for and about. God put that kind of curiosity in human beings generally, and in some human personalities specifically, for a reason and it does no good to suppress it. Besides, like as not we’re going to pay dearly as a nation for letting our lead in high-energy physics lapse and letting the EU get ahead of us on it. One never knows where pure research will head but at this stage of the historical game it always leads to practical results that pay for themselves many times over – without the work done by applied and theoretical science in quantum mechanics a la CERN, we wouldn’t have our current Electronic Age, for example. Nor would we have some of the most terrible weapons that we have. What will be pulled out of the rabbit’s hat down the road? Will they enable certain prophecies of the Bible to be fulfilled? We’ll see.

  7. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    On the other hand and for the record, there are other kinds of knowledge that I would love to have handed to me on a platter (it would be a study of many lifetimes to come even close to an answer I’d really and fully understand with regard to the Bible and history, for as much as I love history, I always have the sense of never being able to “get it right” as it should be understood). I strongly suspect that those kinds of knowledge we feel comfortable searching for now and those we tend to hold in abeyance (and wish others would too) until the Kingdom comes, are strictly a function of personality type (in the sense of what order our nine intelligences have in our minds playing what roles in dealing with God, man and the world).

  8. Bryan

    Seems that there will always be hurdles to finding the Universal Theory. Maybe because it’s man that is attempting to do the “finding.”

    It is my theory that a Universal Theory would require perfect perception of reality. Man’s perception of reality will always be flawed because he can’t help but use his flawed, mortal brain to process and interpret reality.

    …That and uncalibrated fiber optic cable.

  9. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    I think Dr. Einstein would agree with you in principle, Bryan. He once likened us to beings living inside a mechanical watch, by our very nature and that of the watch having trouble inferring the interaction of all the parts, let alone what the watch is like as viewed from outside and what the watch is for in the first place. (He didn’t put the matter in those exact words – he was, after all, a deist – but that will serve for our purposes.) And there is a mathematical theorem, Godel’s Theorem, that seems to imply something similar. Because we live inside the universe, there are and always will be some questions that we can’t answer yes or no about it. Only someone outside the system can do that. Godel’s Theorem generalized thus implies the existence of God, as every system with enough information to be useful apparently faces this paradox (the theorem strictly speaking is about the “incompleteness” of mathematics itself).

    Fellow mathematician George Cantor, for different reasons, called that someone the Absolute Infinite, which he equated with God.

    And there is a mathematical-linguistic proof published in the Creation Research Society Quarterly which points in the same direction, with regard to a Metalanguage which has the effective attributes of God:

    This is interesting too – a hypothetical meeting between Socrates and Charles Darwin in the afterlife:

    CAUTION: He who reads these articles risks one or mental fuses blowing as he tries to comprehend them. 😉

  10. Leave it to an avid student of math to write a science fiction story about “the equation.” Go figure.

    Just for fun, let’s say that your protagonist concluded that “the equation” does not equal god; but that God equals “the equation.” Is that what you were leading to?

  11. Nope, not anything so deep. I simply imagined him being disturbed by the consequences he saw and deciding — for some reason not elaborated on in the short, short story — that his theory must be wrong, and, thus, stirred to set things right. As some have observed, the element of will has much to do what what we believe and accept, arguments of others notwithstanding.

  12. Texasborn

    John, WHAT brings you to TexasBorn? I assume you are referring to me. I have not posted anything on this particular blog post until now. Were you perhaps referring to an earlier blog date of Mr. Smith’s? If so, which one? I can’t help but be curious of what you are mentioning. Perhaps you are referencing someone else’s post here before yours.

  13. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    Sorry about that, TexasBorn. 🙂 And I hope you won’t be upset at me, but the following in your post on this thread got me rather upset despite myself (in fact the whole post from which it came did):

    We don’t have too much longer to to wait to put all these silly and expensive “experiments” away and get some real answers about the so-called dark side of the universe and the way things really work from the One who designed and created it all. (Job 42:3-6). I’m looking forward to that time.

    Hold on. I’m looking forward to that time too. That doesn’t mean that I want such scientific experiments suppressed, let alone on the alleged grounds that they’re “silly and expensive”. “Expensive” is a relative term – as I indicated, these experiments always end up paying for themselves many times over one way or another. Every fundamental discovery we make about nature has always done so. Really fundamental discoveries about history do too (but that’s another branch of the human quest for knowledge). But fundamental discoveries are literally priceless, for their own sake. So long as a society has its priorities in order in the first place, it can always find a way to finance pure research.

    But “silly”? Sorry, I can’t let that evaluation go unchallenged – on two grounds. First, not everybody has the temperamental need, or easily discerns the worth of that need in others, for knowledge and competence for their own sake. (Mr. Smith is one of those, as it happens, and I have a strong “backup temperament” in that direction – so strong that many people think I’m more of a “theorist” than I really am.) God put that need in humans as much as He put the need to be free to act, to maintain continuity and stability, and to pay attention to human development as such. He obviously loves such drives in His children, otherwise He wouldn’t put them there.

    The second grounds I’ve mentioned already. “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out,” King Solomon wrote. In his day kings, or those patronized by kings and the like, were the only ones who had the money to do scientific and historical research. We owe some fascinating discoveries in archaeology to the fact that one king in Mesopotamia was interested in history and set up a museum. One of the sculptures in that museum may represent Daniel in the lion’s den, for several reasons (William Shea discusses that in an article in Bible and Spade). Anyway, everybody else had to concentrate on making a living in other ways. They hadn’t yet conceived, discovered or applied the ability of machines to free people. That too, by the way, came from pure research originally. Where would we be if the Greeks, or the Scots, or others who developed that machinery in various ways and the principles behind them had just waited for God to hand them physical knowledge on a platter? And believe me, they had people saying their work was “silly and expensive” then too and in terms of percentages, often for about the same level of justification.

    I don’t want everything handed to me on a platter. I want to learn as much as I can, here and now. That’s how God wired me. Paul thought rather as I did and nobody said it better than he – not to deny the value of partial knowledge but to call it what it is, valuable but partial:

    (1 Corinthians 13:8 RSV) Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
    (1 Corinthians 13:9 RSV) For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;
    (1 Corinthians 13:10 RSV) but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
    (1 Corinthians 13:11 RSV) When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
    (1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV) For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
    (1 Corinthians 13:13 RSV) So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

    So then, there are priorities in life and I hope my obituary in the LCN says not that I’m allegedly so smart or so musically talented (as it probably will), but that “he finally learned what LOVE is all about”. 🙂 Meanwhile, I rejoice in the partial knowledge I have, both the spiritual and the physical, because without it I have no grounds for faith, hope and love that means anything. God reveals Himself through the Bible and nature alike and I’m eager for any truth that’s found in both, by any honest researcher. 😀 Even if it’s expensive. Even if it seems rather silly at the time, even to me. 😉

  14. Texasborn

    John, thank you for solving the mystery of your reference point, by quoting in italics a part of the applicable post. If you scroll up above your post above mine, you will see that it was the post by TEAPOTTEMPEST on February the 24th at 1:58PM. I’m rather surprised that you thought that I would post such textual tone displayed by TEAPOTTEMPEST. Perhaps you need a new prescription for your glasses?

    Like you, I have also a great desire to learn things, and not just have knowledge poured into my brain involuntarily. As I had told Mr. Smith–as well as others–I could live three lives simultaneously and still not have enough time to do, see and LEARN all the things for which I have that desire!

    I believe it is “mea culpa maxima” time for you again. (:-D) But, as Baba Sun said yesterday at 12:43PM on Facebook, “Te non solum.” (You aren’t the only one.) I have been guilty of such, also, when I did not observe Paul’s admonition at I Thessalonians 5:21.

    Have a great preparation day and Sabbath!

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