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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Still faster than light

The second neutrino experiment appears to confirm the previous result:
One of the most staggering results in physics – that neutrinos may go faster than light – has not gone away with two further weeks of observations. The researchers behind the jaw-dropping finding are now confident enough in the result that they are submitting it to a peer-reviewed journal.

"The measurement seems robust," says Luca Stanco of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Padua, Italy. "We have received many criticisms, and most of them have been washed out."

Stanco is a member of the OPERA collaboration, which shocked the world in September with the announcement that the ghostly subatomic particles had arrived at the Gran Sasso mine in Italy about 60 nanoseconds faster than light speed from the CERN particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland, 730 kilometres away. Theorists have been struggling to reconcile the September result with the laws of physics. Einstein's theory of special relativity posits that nothing can travel faster than light, and many physicists believe the result could disappear in a puff of particles.

The result also unsettled those within the OPERA collaboration. Stanco was one of 15 team members who did not sign the original preprint of the paper because they thought the results were too preliminary.

One of the main concerns was that it was difficult to link individual neutrino hits at Gran Sasso to the particles that left CERN. To double check, the team ran a second set of measurements with tighter bunches of particles from 21 October to 6 November.

In that time, they observed 20 new neutrino hits – a piddling number compared with the 16,000 hits in the original experiment. But Stanco says the tighter particle bunches made those hits easier to track and time: "So they are very powerful, these 20 events."
More checks

The team also rechecked their statistical analysis, confirming that the error on their measurements was indeed 10 nanoseconds. Some team members, including Stanco, had worried that the true error was larger. What they found was "absolutely compatible" with the original announcement, he says.
Fascinating stuff. It's tremendously amusing to see all the physicists pooh-poohing the reports and producing literally dozens of why what has reportedly happened couldn't possibly have happened. It would appear supraluminal neutrinos are the Tim Tebow of the physics world. Anyhow, if there are subsequent confirmations of faster-than-light speed and the scientific consensus of the physics world mutates once more, I have little doubt that the atheists of the future will be one day be arguing that the Bible is wrong because it implies nothing can move faster than light. They've done this with both Ptolemy's geocentric theory and the Flat Earth theory, so there is no reason to believe they won't eventually blame Einstein's mistakes on God as well.

The experiments also serve to substantiate my critique of the "extraordinary claims" argument. Traveling faster than light is every bit as extraordinary a claim as the existence of the supernatural; it is actually more extraordinary because claims are far less frequently made for it. And yet, the experiment has been repeated once, will be peer reviewed, and will probably be replicated once or twice in the relatively near future.

If this is "extraordinary evidence", then science is in much worse shape than either the science critics or the science fetishists imagine.

But let's not forget the most important factor here: supraluminal speed is just cool.

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