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.