From the CERN press release:

Geneva, 23 September 2011. The OPERA1 experiment, which observes a neutrino beam from CERN2 730 km away at Italy’s INFN Gran Sasso Laboratory, will present new results in a seminar at CERN this afternoon at 16:00 CEST. The seminar will be webcast at http://webcast.cern.ch. Journalists wishing to ask questions may do so via twitter using the hash tag #nuquestions, or via the usual CERN press office channels.

The OPERA result is based on the observation of over 15000 neutrino events measured at Gran Sasso, and appears to indicate that the neutrinos travel at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, nature’s cosmic speed limit. Given the potential far-reaching consequences of such a result, independent measurements are needed before the effect can either be refuted or firmly established. This is why the OPERA collaboration has decided to open the result to broader scrutiny. The collaboration’s result is available on the preprint server arxiv.org: http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897.

The OPERA measurement is at odds with well-established laws of nature, though science frequently progresses by overthrowing the established paradigms. For this reason, many searches have been made for deviations from Einstein’s theory of relativity, so far not finding any such evidence. The strong constraints arising from these observations makes an interpretation of the OPERA measurement in terms of modification of Einstein’s theory unlikely, and give further strong reason to seek new independent measurements.

“This result comes as a complete surprise,” said OPERA spokesperson, Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern. “After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement.While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation.” 

Ever since I began investigating from a philosophical standpoint the nature of the universe, I have been deeply skeptical of the idea that light is the speed limit of the universe, and is the same speed as measured for any observer, as is stipulated by Special and General Relativity, for two reasons.  Here’s what I said in a July 30, 2011 post reviewing Einstein’s Mistakes, a 2008 book by Hans C Ohanian.

I wish I understood the mathematical explanations of Special and General Relativity better than I do.  In my own humble quest to fashion a functional understanding of the universe and the life within it, I have stumbled over each theory multiple times.  Each seems pregnant with logical inconsistencies, but I have not applied myself sufficiently to their mathematical explications to get at what might be their source, or to figure out why my instincts are wrong. 

Ohanian starts Einstein’s Mistakes with a humorous, if somewhat disturbing, anecdote about a yachtsman who went mad while in a race around the world because Einstein simply stipulated in Relativity, The Special and General Theory that light had the same speed no matter in which direction it was measured, i.e., without accounting for the rotation of the earth, etc.  The yachtsman was becalmed in the Atlantic, actually intentionally; he was wasting time because of a strategy he had devised to cheat his way to victory, when he pulled out Einstein’s book to pass the time.  He never got past the stipulation, which Einstein had “proclaimed of [his] own free will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity.”  Obviously, no scientist serious about discovering the nature of reality can simply stipulate the universe behave as he likes.  Ohanian provides that Einstein was mistaken in procedure, but not in outcome, as the phenomenon has been experimentally proved. 

But this extraordinary claim that the speed of light always appears the same to all observers, no matter their acceleration or motion in relation to it, seems illogical to me.  How could something used as the ultimate speed limit for the universe (as is light for the theories), that always has the same speed no matter its relation to the observer, have any speed at all?  Speed, velocity, acceleration, i.e., motion is a relative concept.  Movement without context is not movement.  Movement is always in relation to something else.  The speed at which my fingers move over this keypad can be measured against the relatively invariant motion of the computer, desk, room, house, etc. that provide the contextual framework for saying that they move.  How can something for which the context of movement is meaningless, as is light with its absolute velocity, no matter the velocity of the observer doing the measuring, be considered to be moving at all? If light always travels the same speed for every observer, how then is it moving?  With its velocity constant in all contexts, how can its velocity ever be measured?  I fail to grasp it. 

David Bohm, in his excellent primer, The Special Theory of Relativity, states that the validity of Special and General Relativity hinge on light being the fastest known entity in the universe:

But there is no known signal that can go faster than light.  Moreover, as we shall see later, the theory of relativity implies that such a signal is not possible in the sense that the assumption that such a signal is possible leads to a contradiction with the theory of relativity. (emphasis Bohm’s).

But what of entangled particles?  It has been experimentally proved that when two particles become “entangled”, i.e., counter-poised in spin or some other attribute, the changing of one particle changes, automatically and instantaneously, the other.  Is this not a signal, in the sense that Bohm describes, that is faster than the speed of light? 

It gets even more confusing when it is considered that a light source traveling away from an observer exhibits something of a Doppler effect, extending the frequency of the light rays in a “red-shift” much as the pitch of a passing train changes from high to low as frequency of the sound waves it generates are compressed and then expanded.  How does light, whose speed is purportedly the same for all observers, undergo the same Doppler effect as a sound wave, whose speed of propagation we know to be explicable by plain old Newtonian physics?

The Special Theory of Relativity has its origins in attempts to solve the problem of clock synchronization.  Clock synchronization presented marvelous conundrums for theoretical physicists, but very little in the way of practical difficulties.  All one had to do, even in Einstein’s day, was do as I and my helicopter-flying comrades did before a mission—have everyone meet and synchronize their watches at the same time and place.  But it presented such theoretical difficulties that the clock synchronization problem transformed into a bigger issue over the notion of whether an ether thought to encompass the universe really existed; Special Relativity was specifically intended to eliminate the ether.  Abraham Michelson, the main proponent of the ether hypothesis at the end of the nineteenth century, continued to believe in it until his death, even after no effects of it could be experimentally detected.  Ohanian quotes him lamenting, “But without a medium, how can the propagation of light waves be explained?…How explain the constancy of propagation, the fundamental assumption…if there be no medium?”  I suppose I’m a throwback.  Like Michelson, I just don’t get how light has speed except in relation to something else, and according to the theory of Special Relativity, no matter what the something else happens to be, the speed of light is the same.

This anomalous experimental result–neutrinos time and again measured traveling faster than light–may be the first chink in the armor of the legions of theoretical physicists making it their life’s work to defend Einstein’s theories.  The contortions required to make the universe fit Einstein’s theories recall in some measure the mental gymnastics required to fit a geocentric universe to its heliocentric observations.  More from the review:

Of all Einstein’s blunders, the most famous must be the cosmological constant he inserted into his equations for General Relativity when it turned out his theory implied the universe was not static as he believed it to be.  Ohanian disagrees that it was his “biggest blunder” as Einstein described it, observing that Einstein was mistaken only because he got the magnitude wrong, which is true.  The evidence for an accelerating universe compelled reinsertion of the term, but at a higher value, that now provides that most of the universe must be composed of dark matter and energy (together, roughly 96%) that is not detectable, except for its accelerating effect, in any meaningful way.   Shades of ether? 

I think Einstein was correct in his assertion that the cosmological constant was his biggest blunder.  That he so fastidiously believed, on the basis of no evidence, the universe to be static such that he made up a number and inserted in his equations to keep his universe still, speaks to a latent character flaw that was further revealed in his rejection of probabilistically determined outcomes in quantum theory.  Quite apart from his role as a radical, mystical theoretician capable of seeing implications where others did not, Einstein insisted that the universe behave in the manner he wished, and stubbornly refused to accept that it might be dynamic and probabilistic.  His cosmological constant quandary is more understandable, given the limited evidence at the time; his refusal to accept the tenets of quantum theory, not so much.

God does play dice with the universe at the quantum level, and does quite a few other very eerie things, like entangling particles in such a way that they instantaneously know what their partner is doing at all times.  Einstein (in a paper written with Podolsky and Rosen, which gave rise to what came to be known as the EPR paradox) in fact attempted to disprove the Uncertainty Principle in quantum theory by an experiment with entangled particles, showing that the position of a particle, and its momentum, could be simultaneously known.  If two particles in quantum correlation are sent scurrying in different directions at identical momentum, EPR proposed that the position and momentum of one could be determined by the measurement of the other.  Which may or may not have been true for the EPR experimenters, but the idea of quantum entanglement , as I pointed out previously, seems to contradict the foundational notion of Special and General Relativity that no information can travel faster than the speed of light.  If EPR is correct, as further experimental evidence seems to confirm (particularly by the Scottish physicist John Bell), then relativity is suspect.

Don’t misunderstand.  I do not dispute the central premise of relativity:  Objective understanding of reality requires understanding the subjective conditions from which it is perceived.  This notion is Einstein’s greatest contribution to the advancement of human understanding.  Everything we perceive is done so subjectively.  We can not escape the prison of our perceptual biases except through understanding from whence they arise.  Radical objectivity requires educated subjectivity. 

If light is not the speed limit of the universe; if light is not always measured at the same speed, no matter the speed of the observer; if neutrinos provide further evidence (along with entangled particles, and even gravity itself) that the speed of light provides only limited help in understanding the nature of the universe, perhaps then some of the logical conundrums pregnant within Special and General Relativity might be resolved.  Perhaps a fresh set of intellects considering the problem again, in light of the limited explanatory usefulness of Einstein’s theories if light is not the universal speed limit, might then, for example, be able to relegate dark matter and energy to the dustbins of mysticism.  In a subsequent post on Einstein, I pondered the future of his ideas:

It is undoubtedly true that in some future day, once the mists of time have obscured the glorious reputation and esteem with which Einstein is now regarded, there will arise a new development in human thought that will usurp and extend today’s increasingly ossified dogma in much the same manner as Galileo, Newton and Einstein did with Aristotle.  The domain of understanding will then be extended to new realms.  But it will only happen after the old ideas and reputations wither and die, clearing way for the light of reason to again reach the forest floor of imagination.

Maybe, just maybe, the experiment at CERN means that we won’t have to wait so long as I imagined to extend the domain of our understanding.

Advertisements