Monday, November 21, 2011

Light still cannot be shed on a speeding neutrino?

A while ago there was the report that neutrinos may be able to travel faster than the speed of light, an ultimate no-no in science.  That's worse than DUI or speeding on a highway. As we posted a while back, it violates not just some local ordinance, but a century-old prohibition that should hold true anywhere in the universe!

Now, the same lab has reported that they've replicated the experiment, again finding the neutrino to be committing its crime, flying faster than a pepperoni pizza disappears in a frat house.  Some say that a different lab will have to do this, because maybe the perps are not the neutrinos but the lab set-up.  This is serious business!

The Laws of Nature simply do not allow anything to travel faster than the speed of light (even a cosmic cop car).  Indeed, going faster would be hard to document ordinarily because light must be used to track the damn thing flying by, and light can't catch something that goes even faster.  We don't know if neutrinos produce the equivalent of a sonic boom from an object exceeding the speed of sound.  Nor do we know what makes light (much less neutrinos) actually go anywhere. But apparently they (light photons, anyway) are so ever dissatisfied with where they are that they cannot stop zipping away, and for some strange reason, they only go in high gear.

There can be no violation of a Law of Nature
Of course, there can be no violation of a Law of Nature.  That's because a Law of Nature by definition is something that cannot be violated--anywhere, any time.  So if the neutrino is doing what is reported, it is not violating a Law of Nature.  Instead, we simply had been misreading the 'Law'.  We'll have to revise our theories of physics.  Of course, it is our notion that such laws exist, but it would be strange if there were no universal principles in the universe!

If we've misunderstood things, there will be some other factor, force, or basic principle that we will have to identify that explains what we now know.  Since so much has seemed consistent with the speed of light being constant and maximal, in global experiments around the world, the new factor may apply only under very unusual circumstances, or else why didn't we sense its existince?  It could also be that now we know to look carefully, we'll find that the implications are much broader than just such rarities, and will fill in or modify other things that were difficult to explain in the past, Einstein notwithstanding.

This experience can apply to any field.  Biology is the same. We may think we have principles analogous to 'laws', or at least that are fundamental to all of life.  But at present we find few principles that don't have exceptions.  Those who argue explicitly or in practice that, in essence, evolutionary biology and genetics have now revealed the basic principles of life (even if we have yet to learn scads of details), are perhaps making rather bold claims.

Beyond the current misbehavior of neutrinos, if the history of science teaches us anything it is that there will always be (or, at least, has always been) surprises around the corner: fundamental new discoveries that force major changes in what we thought we knew.

As we have said before, this reality makes it hard to interpret problematic results, such as the incompleteness of GWAS studies, or the difficulty in testing evolutionary adaptation stories.  The arguments about these things, including statements by us and those dropping comments here on MT, are all based on the value of some generally agreed-on parameter such as the strength of genetic causation, the amount of natural selection, or the probability of a disease for people with a given genotype.  

Even in our most vehement disagreements about such things, we don't argue that the explanatory elusiveness is due to some unknown, as yet undiscovered factor or principle.  This is very strange, given that all the evidence shows the near inevitability of some transformative discovery at some point in the future.  Why don't we invoke Factor X (biological 'dark matter') to make our point?

The obvious answer is that we would not be constrained in what kind of Factor X we might invent, and we could always be able to invent one that would perfectly satisfy our point of view in a dispute about the facts.  Science is supposed to be the quest to understand the true causal nature of Nature, staying within things that are material and testable.  So, while we know that Factor X's are likely to be discovered, we're generally not allowed to invoke them, even in principle, although some examples that come close to that do exist, such as fudge factors like Planck's constant in physics (or string theory in general?).

In biology, genes were invoked before anybody had the foggiest idea what they were, and some viewed them as made-up metaphysical notions.  But that notion was specific and led to experiments that, in fact, showed that they exist.   We're allowed to include factors such as statistical 'noise', that quantify deviations from our theory and the actual data, but they assume something like random irrelevancies such as measurement errors.  Statistical noise thus isn't a fudge factor invoked as being anything real, and in a way is an open-ended excuse for clinging to an explanation that doesn't quite fit the data.

The likelihood that fundamental factors or principles do exist but that, like some items of clothing, are unmentionable, puts us in a bind--like trying to track a speeding neutrino that is traveling faster than the light we have to use to track it.

This prohibition is at the core of science, and is necessary, but it's very weird!

1 comment:

Holly Dunsworth said...

It is very weird. It's very very weird.