Why the CERN Neutrino thing could be a *very* important thing.

Michio Kaku over at the WSJ has an article up on the subject.  For those who missed it, the basic story is this: researchers at  CERN had a “Huh.  That’s odd*” moment when they discovered neutrinos apparently moving at speeds that were faster than light.  This, of course, flatly contradicts our current understanding of physics, which is why the researchers in question are being very, very careful to ask their fellow-physicists to descend upon their observed data and beat it with analytical and procedural sticks.  The safe way to bet – as xkcd literally notes here – is that there’s something wrong with the observational method; in fact, Dr. Kaku himself thinks that this is probably the case.  Honestly, I expect that myself.

But if it is right… well, here’s the reported results that jumped out at me.

…after analyzing 15,000 neutrinos, they found that they traveled faster than the speed of light—one 60-billionth of a second faster, to be precise. In a billionth of a second, a beam of light travels about one foot. So a difference of 60 feet was quite astonishing.

If I am reading that right – and I may not be – that certainly sounds like… well, that time-to-Alpha-Centauri just can’t be right.  I’ve sent out the math to be checked by an actual physicist. I’ll let you know what she tells me.

[UPDATE: turns out that I was reading it wrong (but that the explanation wasn’t very good anyway): the aforementioned physicist tells me that the neutrinos are apparently moving at 100.002% the speed of light, instead of the 60x implied by the article.  So, three days off of the total.  On the bright side, if this data pans out then it’s a start.]

Via Instapundit.

Moe Lane

*That is, by the way, the single most exciting thing that one can say or hear in the sciences.


  • Fred says:

    The foot figure is correct as an approximation, but is accurate to within 2%. It is called “Hopper’s Rule” after Grace Murray Hopper, the Naval officer and pioneering computer scientist.

  • Fred says:

    Also, there are about pi seconds in a nanocentury (accurate to within one half percent), so we can tell off the cuff:

    light travels 60 billion feet per hour, or about 1.9 hundred thousand mph.

    a light century is therefore about 3.14 billion billion feet, so a light year is 3.14 ten million billion feet, or 6 trillion miles.

  • Fred says:

    The exciting part to me is that **if** this is true, it could provide the physics we need to develop a faster than light drive for our starships.

    For example, the neutrinos may be taking a shortcut via some of the other (hidden) dimensions that String Theory predicts. Or the neutrinos could be exposing the mechanism Nature uses to enable quantum entanglement’s faster than light effects (experimentally demonstrated, so we believe it is real). Or something else. But as you say, we’ll probably find an error somewhere. BTW, the MINOS experiment at Fermilab may have seen something similar, but it was right at the expected statistical error of the experiment, so they rightly had no confidence in the result. And now I’ll shut up.

  • Demosthenes says:

    Yeah, it’s interesting, but not TOO exciting. I’ve done the math. Assume there are aliens in the Alpha Centauri star system, and we could figure out a way to code a message and send it at them via a tight neutrino beam. Aplha Centauri is 4.365 light years away from Earth (give or take a bit). Assuming that to be relatively exact, then it would take light a little over 137,650,000 seconds to travel that distance. Light travels at 186,000 mph, which I know is an approximation, but assuming it to be exact, that would mean 272,800 feet per second. Multiply those two numbers together, and you get an average distance to Alpha Centauri of a little more than 37.5 trillion feet. Accounting for the 60-foot-per-second difference in speed, a message sent on that tight neutrino beam would reach Alpha Centauri before the light from our solar system did…by a little less than eight and a half hours.

  • Demosthenes says:

    Let me put it a different way. (Note: in the following calculations, I admit I have not accounted for leap year. I am using a 365-day year, 24-hours day, and assuming those figures to be exact. But the principles are all right.) Let’s say we send a greeting to the people of Alpha Centauri at midnight GMT on January 1, 2012, telling them that there’s (relatively) intelligent life in the next star system over and to watch for a signal from our people. Simultaneously, we set off a GIGANTIC explosion, which we know will be visible to the naked eye on the surface of any planet in the Alpha Centauri system. The explosion would become visible to the Centaurans on May 13, 2016, at a little before 5:30 in the morning GMT. Our message would have arrived THE NIGHT BEFORE, at just after 9:00 in the evening GMT on May 12, 2016. Hopefully, there is sentient life in the Alpha Centauri system which was able to receive and decode the message — and decipher its origin — in time to enjoy the fireworks, or we just paid for the galaxy’s most expensive Independence Day celebration for naught.

  • Demosthenes says:

    And of course, I spend all that time revisiting my high school physics courses, and then Moe goes and updates his post before I can get my “findings” up, grumble.

  • Robin Carduner says:

    Demosthenes: Light travels at approximately 186,000 miles per SECOND, not per HOUR.

    Fred: Light does not travel 60bn feet per hour. 186,000 miles x 5280 (feet/mile) x 3600 (seconds/hour) = 3,535,488,000,000, or about 3.5tn feet per hour.

    Most people who actually know about these things don’t use feet and miles in the first place, let alone units like nanocenturies and PI seconds. Light travels (in a vacuum of course) 299,792,458 metres per second, which is as close to an EXACT number as we can get. There’s no need for approximations because the metre is in fact DEFINED to be the distance that light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second. (We won’t get into how a second is actually defined here, but there’s a link below.)

    Stick to SI units and you’re much less likely to bungle up the maths.

  • Kresh says:

    …and here’s where the retards like me pipe in and say; “So, it’s like the speed of sound, right? We just thought it couldn’t be broken ’cause WE couldn’t do it. Who knew?”

    Or something similar. I always get weird when someone says “It can’t be done.” Doesn’t matter what it is, I just get twitchy… even when I’m wrong.

    Honestly, it’s neat (really, really neat), but it does nothing in the short term. Like any real advances would be allowed to be put to use in this current anti-science atmosphere that the left is fostering. The endarkening is coming and it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

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