Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rogue Neutrinos

Neutrinos are trouble. Apparently they’re now travelling faster than light when they’ve been told not to.

And this is not the first time they’ve had the physicists in a tizzy. The last time they made trouble was when they caused the Solar Neutrino Problem. To quote from Wikipedia:

“The solar neutrino problem was a major discrepancy between measurements of the numbers of neutrinos flowing through the Earth and theoretical models of the solar interior, lasting from the mid-1960s to about 2002. The discrepancy has since been resolved by new understanding of neutrino physics, requiring a modification of the Standard Model of particle physics – specifically, neutrino oscillation. Essentially, as neutrinos have mass, they can change from the type that had been expected to be produced in the Sun's interior into two types that would not be caught by the detectors in use at the time.”

Now I don’t pretend to understand all of this, but the bottom line is clear: neutrinos are trouble. Why can’t they just behave and follow the laws of physics like all the other well behaved particles out there ? This time around though, they’ve gone too far – or perhaps I should say too fast – and the consequences can be rather amazing: if faster than light travel is possible it would mean that you will not see things until after they hit you.

On the other hand, that sounds vaguely familiar. I’m sure I’ve been hit by things before I could see them…..deadlines, car breakdowns, stock market crashes – come to think of it, most troubles tend to hit you before you see them. Does that mean troubles move faster than light ? does it mean they are made of neutrinos ?

Who knows.

In another sense though, if the faster than speed measurement is indeed proven correct, there will be nothing very unusual about it. Along the centuries humans have changed their views of the world several times; remember when we thought earth was at the center of the universe ? But we haven’t had a big challenge to our view of the world in a long while now, so that we’ve started looking at our current theories as final and inviolable. The shock of finding something so fundamentally new would therefore be immense.

It is an important point. Things change. In fact the longer they’ve remained unchanged, the more likely they are to change – even though it can feel like it should be the other way around. Indeed, what if everything you ever knew about something was wrong ?

The Neutrino discrepancy might turn out to be a red herring, but change will continue one way or another. “Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won't come in.

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