Neutrinos Faster than the Speed of Light: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

Or, as the New York Times put it today, “Incredible claims require incredible evidence.”

The reference is to the mind-blowing (apparent) discovery that there are neutrinos that can outpace the speed of light. Here’s more from the New York Times:

According to scientists familiar with the paper, the neutrinos raced from a particle accelerator at CERN outside Geneva, where they were created, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy, a distance of about 450 miles, about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 0.0025 percent (2.5 parts in a hundred thousand).

Even this small deviation would open up the possibility of time travel and play havoc with longstanding notions of cause and effect. Einstein himself — the author of modern physics, whose theory of relativity established the speed of light as the ultimate limit — said that if you could send a message faster than light, “You could send a telegram to the past.”

Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, called the claim “flabbergasting.”

“If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything,” he said, adding: “It looks too big to be true. The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong.”

So, when there’s tension between your background knowledge (what you think you know) and a serious new claim, what should you do?

Well, first you’ve got to scrutinize the new claim, and, if it seems to hold up, you’ve got to go back and double-check the premises underlying your background knowledge.

Then you’ve got to talk it through with others and debate and theorize your way to a new hypothesis—one that best accounts for everything you now (think) that you know.

In other words, physicists are in the same boat with neutrinos and the speed of light that the rest of us are in concerning such things as trying to decide whether or not to invest in silver or commit to a relationship: we all have to reconcile what we take to be our background knowledge with new and incoming information. And we achieve this reconciliation (if we are being patient and not functioning under pressures of time) by investigation, dialogue, and theorizing.

So, how the physics community comports itself in public on this neutrino/speed-of-light issue can function as an example to all of us for how to live critically engaged and rational lives. Unlike the crap typical of political and religious television channels, this will be a drama worth watching—a drama suffused with genuinely vulnerable debate on matters epistemic—and that puts on display the modes of thought that first flowered because of the Euro-American Enlightenment.

On the other hand, Lizard Lick Towing on TruTV is pretty good watchin’ as well.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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