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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Du Sautoy on CERN's speed of light result

I missed a Marcus du Sautoy ( pronounce: desoto ) documentary on CERN's issues on the speed of light. I watched it yesterday though. Another quality documentary by the BBC. I think there was a one-minute babble by the home expert on everything on Dutch tv. I have heard that the BBC receives hundreds if not thousands of complaints every week, well maybe that's what keeps them sharp.

To the point.

Faster than the speed of light could be made so fast due to the rich catalog of the BBC. A lot of material in this episode came from the catalog, no doubt. The struggles scientists had with light are explained up to the point that Einstein entered the scene and explained it all. Einstein said that the speed of light is the same everywhere and independent of how it is measured so time became variable which is hard to understand but true. Later Einstein said that time is the limit of speed in the universe. Nothing can travel faster than light. Voila $E=mc^2$.

Well, a neutrino traveled faster than light There are 16 types of fundamental particles, three of which are a neutrino. Pauli predicted neutrinos in 1930 but he thought it wouldn't be possible to ever find one. We are crossed by billions of neutrinos every second which is possible because everything, including us, is built up from atoms which are mostly empty. Neutrinos are extremely small and have no charge. But they still have a tiny mass so their speed is limited to the speed of light according to Einstein's laws. The amazing result from CERN is about neutrinos traveling faster than light.

For me, as a non-physicist, I find it unbelievable that it is possible to make such precise measurements. If the neutrinos and light were athletes running the 100m they would have beaten light only by a few millimeters.

Scientists are skeptical because time travel would become possible and it contradicts with previous results in the late 80s when it was measured that light and neutrinos emitted by a supernova reached us at almost the same time. But in favor of CERN is a previous result measured in Chicago which at the time was considered an error.

I lost it when Du Sautoy began about tachyons. Theoretical particles with imaginary or negative mass which could travel faster than light, mathematically of course, but so did anti-matter which was predicted through mathematics. There are also circumstances where an absolute speed limit doesn't make sense like black holes and the first second after the big-bang. And of course Einstein's theory and quantum-mechanics are incompatible.

String theory might have an explanation which satisfies everyone though. In their multi-dimensional bulk we live on a 3D membrane. It could be that the neutrinos left our membrane into the 4th dimension and so appeared faster. I bet a lot of SF fans could have come up with a similar explanation. String theorists are actually paid to talk about the fourth up to the 10th or eleventh dimension.

If you haven't seen the documentary yet, you'll be able to find it somewhere, I did.

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(Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion, colloquially aka Raumpatrouille Orion was the first German science fiction television series. Its seven episodes were broadcast by ARD beginning September 17, 1966. The series has since acquired cult status in Germany. Broadcast six years before Star Trek first aired in West Germany (in 1972), it became a huge success.)