We are the 99%

October 17, 2011

A Tale Of Two Explanations...

I am not sure you've been following this story.

Scientists in Switzerland have some evidence that, if verified, would complicate a great deal of what is accepted  as fundamentally true in the understanding of the universe.  From the press release:
The OPERA result is based on the observation of over 15000 neutrino events measured at Gran Sasso, and appears to indicate that the neutrinos travel at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, nature’s cosmic speed limit.
"OPERA" here means "Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus" and it's an apparatus for detecting subatomic particles known as a neutrinos.  Why is this such a big deal?

Because, according to Einstein, nothing should be able to travel faster than light.  It's an outcome of his Special Theory of Relativity - that as a particle moves faster, it's mass increases thus making it necessary to increase the  force needed to make it go faster.  In order to push that particle to the speed of light, an infinite amount of energy is needed to push it there.  Ergo nothing can travel at the speed of light, much less faster than the speed of light.

I think I have that right.

So if the Opera data is correct, scientists have found something that moves faster than light.

Here's the tale of two explanations.  First, this little bit of possible cosmic paradigm shifting is used to debunk the science of climate change.

That's right.  In the Wall Street Journal op-ed page:
The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere.
The piece is from Robert Bryce, described as a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  Can I point out how the Manhattan Institute's been on the receiving end of $4.5 million in Scaife money over the years?

The problem with Bryce's assessment is how it gets science wrong.  Not the CERN data, but just how science works.  If CERN scientists are correct, it doesn't mean that Einstein was wrong - just that his explanations were incomplete.  It complicates the theory, not negates it.  Bryce is using the neutrino anomaly to bolster the idea that any skepticism (even corporate funded, anti-scientific skepticism) is valid since even Einstein can be wrong.

Bryce is just embarrassing himself by using that argument.

And now the other explanation.  It could turn out that the neutrino anomaly is far more mundane.  From Wired:
Among the most recent [explanations] is a paper invoking Einstein’s supposedly challenged theory of relativity. The OPERA team used GPS satellites to accurately measure the 730-km distance between their detector and the CERN beam where the neutrinos were produced. Yet, according to special relativity, calculations will be slightly different when two observers are moving relative to one another.

Since the satellites were zipping around the Earth, the positions of the neutrino source and the detector changed. According to the paper, the movement would account for a 64 nanoseconds discrepancy, nearly exactly what the OPERA team observes.
It'll take a lot of science to explain this anomaly. But if Occam's Razor has any edge to it, the explanation that makes the fewest new assumptions is probably right.  A GPS tweak or new found faster than light neutrinos?  Hmm...

And since none of this really has anything to do with climate science, Robert Bryce is almost certainly wrong.

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