The Speed of Neutrinos: Part 2

The xkcd take on the neutrino speed measurements. Click to link to xkcd site

The xkcd take on the neutrino speed measurements. Click to link to xkcd site

It would be great to have an experiment that nobody on Earth could understand. Now there are certainly things which we don’t fully understand:

  • We don’t understand how rain drops form in a cloud (link).
  • We don’t understand how life came to be.
  • We don’t understand what ‘dark matter’ is.
  • We don’t know how high-temperature superconductors work.

But I don’t count any of these in the same category of mysterious as the prospect of super-luminal neutrinos.

  • I don’t doubt for a moment that we will eventually understand how rain drops form in a cloud.
  • I don’t know whether we will ever understand this, but I have no problem with the idea that ‘something happened’ – its just I have no idea what that something is!
  • I don’t trust any cosmological deductions from astronomical data – it’s all so far away and we know so little about what is going on. I have no trouble being amazed but I feel sure that discoveries over further decades will resolve matters.
  • We only fail to understand the details of how high-temperature superconductors work: the general phenomenon is fairly well understood

But an experiment that we can do in a lab on Earth, and yet which unequivocally disobeys accepted laws? That would be amazing. And 100 years ago that was exactly the case. Although the nascent science we now call Physics was triumphant, with successful theories of light and the structure of matter, there were several experiments that were utterly inexplicable.

  • Most notable was the phenomenon of radioactivity: certain minerals just spontaneously got hot! This contravened the idea of conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics. And nobody knew what was happening. It took decades before our understanding of atoms enlarged sufficiently that radioactivity ‘made sense’

In 1901 Lord Kelvin drew attention to ‘two small clouds’ on the otheriwse clear horizon of 19th Century physics: the difficulty in understanding the Michelson-Morely experiment and inability to understand the heat capacity of gases. As it turned out, these ‘clouds’ heralded intellectual ‘storms’ which changed our view of the world profoundly.

  • The heat capacity of a gas is a measure of how much energy it takes to increase the temperature of a fixed amount of gas by one degree. How dull a measurement is that! The theories of physics said the answer should be the same for all gases – but in fact the answer differed for different gases – and changed with temperature. This simple fact could not be explained until the theory of Quantum Mechanics was developed – and this radically changed our view of all microscopic processes.
  • The Michelson-Morely experiment measured differences in the speed of light in two perpendicular directions at the same time. The world was astounded to find out that the speed of light was the same in every direction – no matter how fast the Earth was moving around the sun or through the cosmos. When Einstein explained this, he changed our concept of the ‘relativity’ of motion, and  out of his explanation arose the idea that particles or matter could not exceed the speed of light. Einstein’s arguments were completely general and for the last century they have been observed to be correct time and time again. So it would be more than a surprise if it should transpire that neutrinos could move even a tiny bit faster than light. I will write more about this on another evening.

Having an experiment that we could do on Earth which nobody could understand would be amazing. If the superluminal speed of neutrinos were confirmed then physicists would be stumped –  and the lesson of history seems to be that when we have something that we just don’t understand, then we can expect that this will lead to new ways of seeing the world.

I would love to be alive when such a phenomenon was discovered.

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