September 28, 2011

The Neutrino Effect

Last week, science geeks everywhere awoke to potentially astonishing news: the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment, which analyzes subatomic particles as they travel unimpeded through miles of underground tunnels, has recorded a neutrino traveling (slightly) faster than the speed of light! It seems impossible according to everything current physicists know about quantum mechanics; in fact, if this result can be corroborated (Fermilab and others are already attempting this), Einstein's special theory of relativity may be thrown into doubt. (Probably not, but more on that in a minute.) Scientists everywhere are understandably dubious, and some even responded by saying that such tentative data shouldn't have been released to the public to begin with, since it's very likely that the experiment was affected by yet-unidentified human error. Additionally, science tends to be unfriendly (if excitable) toward data that doesn't support their existing paradigm--which, for now, rests solidly with the Standard Model and special relativity. But this finding exhibited a six-sigma deviation, which is suggestive enough to raise a lot of eyebrows.

There are a couple of reasons this is so exciting, and why prominent physicists are saying that this could re-write our fundamental understanding of the universe and the way it works. The speed of light, and its relationship to energy and mass, is one of the most revered equations in the history of science--to question it would result in chaos in cosmology, QM, QED, and other fields. However: it's possible that this result can be interpreted in a slightly different way; instead of assuming that the neutrino is literally moving faster than the speed of light, it could be that it found a shortcut by slipping through a different dimension. This idea is as revolutionary as exceeding the speed of light, but with completely different stakes: suddenly, theories that predict multiple dimensions via theoretical math (string theory/M-theory) have empirical evidence! It may not be the Higgs, but it's enough to allow critical analysis of the Standard Model to emerge into more mainstream scientific circles.

If (and right now, it reamins a massive "if") this result can be corroborated, we may be in the midst of what Thomas Kuhn would call a paradigm shift. In his seminal text The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he argues that movement from one paradigm to another (in this case, possibly from the Standard Model to string theory) must be preceded by an evidential anomaly (the neutrino moving faster than the speed of light) which, if scientists are repeatedly unable to solve using current data problem sets, leads to a scientific crisis. A crisis in this case would result in physicists being forced to re-examine some of the aspects of science that they've long taken for granted--like our perception of only four dimensions, or the speed limit of light. A true paradigm shift would occur if the scientific community is able to change their world view (and attract enough scientists to that community) regarding how certain tenets can be re-interpreted in light of new data. The result is adoption of the new paradigm and scientific revolution.

My fingers are crossed that we'll get to experience this revolution in our lifetimes: if the neutrino effect proves accurate, and physics moves past the Standard Model--but importantly, retains Einstein's special theory of relativity--into a realm of competing multi-dimension theories, there could be some dramatic truths revealed about the universe and our role in it. Pursuit of a grand unifying theory may have gone out of fashion in the past quarter century, but it's still a romantic ontological goal. It could be that the string theory boom of the 1990s was the start of the paradigm shift, and with CERN and OPERA able to articulate experiments beyond the wildest imaginations of scientists fifty years ago, we're just now seeing data that has the kind of anomolous strength required to presage a true revolution.

No comments:

Post a Comment