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Something Incredible

Entry 1331, on 2011-09-23 at 21:29:36 (Rating 3, Science)

The world is sinking further into a major financial crisis but who cares because there's a possibility that neutrinos might travel faster than light. The US is approaching a major political and economic disaster but does it really matter because Einstein might be wrong. Fundamentalist Islam is gaining power and threatens world peace but so what? CERN might have discovered something really amazing.

In the rhetorical rant above I'm trying to portray my thoughts for what's important and what isn't. I see the global financial, banking, and economic system as a silly exercise in futility where greedy people compete to see who can pull off the dirtiest tricks. But what really matters gets little publicity: fundamental discoveries in science which might truly revolutionise the world.

I know that financial markets have a greater immediate direct influence on most people than discoveries in physics but the key words here are "immediate" and "direct" because I think quantum physics (I use that as an example of something most people see as esoteric and theoretical) has had a greater effect on the world than every financial institution that ever existed.

I won't justify that opinion in this blog entry (although I could) because I want to go on to say a little bit about how incredible this discovery potentially is. But first I need to emphasise this is preliminary and unconfirmed, although an earlier but far less precise experiment at FermiLab found a similar result.

So the observation is that neutrinos produced in an experiment being run by the European physics organisation CERN have been observed to arrive at their destination a few billionths of a second earlier than expected. And that earlier arrival means they would be travelling faster than light would. It probably sounds unremarkable to the average person but to a science geek it is just stunning.

The speed of light being a limit to everything in this universe is such a fundamental part of modern science that the possibility that it isn't true is genuinely astonishing. And there's the point that objects travelling faster than light might have bizarre and useful properties which we might only be able to guess at now.

An alternative explanation is even more amazing. That is that there are extra dimensions involved which allow the neutrinos to take shortcuts which bypass the usual dimensions of our universe. In other words it might be possible to take a path shorter than a straight line between two objects.

Both of these hypotheses aren't entirely new: tachyons (particles which travel faster than light) and extra dimensions (7 extra according to some theories) are already a part of the more speculative parts of physics. But finding evidence that these might be real is something else again.

But how would a neutrino travelling faster than light or an extra dimension really affect the average person on the street? We don't know, but judging from the results of theoretical physics discoveries in the past I would say the potential practical applications would be significant.

Just a few of the discoveries coming from quantum physics have lead to the computer revolution and the information age. That revolution is the most significant for centuries and has changed the world more than any economic or financial intervention.

So yes, I think this could be big but we might not know how big for another 50 years. That's the way truly fundamental scientific research works and it's why it doesn't fit into many of the simple-minded business or political models some people try to force onto it.

And even there does turn out to be a prosaic explanation for these observations I think my thoughts are still relevant because there will be other amazing discoveries out there. As Carl Sagan said: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."

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