Exposing PseudoAstronomy

June 8, 2012

That Was Fast: Neutrinos CAN’T Travel Faster than Light (So Far)


Introduction

For the first regular non-podcast-announcement post in awhile*, I just came across this Wired.com article: “ It’s Official: Neutrinos Can’t Beat Speed of Light.” While I doubt this will get much play in most main media outlets, I’m sure it will be talked quite a lot about on science blogs and podcasts. Instead of talking about the results (beyond summarizing them), I’m going to talk about the process here and how, in my opinion, the scientists involved did NOT do the wrong thing.

Pons and Fleischmann and Science by Press Release

Pons’ and Fleischmann’s names will forever live in infamy for doing science by press release. In 1989, they held a press conference where they claimed they had succeeded in cold fusion (fusion at temperatures below millions of degrees).

They were wrong. Every single experiment after them that tried to duplicate their work failed. Disgraced but indignant, both moved to France and took £12 million of Toyota’s money with no results after 10 years. Fleischmann now lives in England and Pons gave up US citizenship and is still living in France.

Both are still championed by the “alternative energy” community for having succeeded in cold fusion but being held back and put down by The Powers that Be (as in alternative medicine, as in, not real).

CERN’s Announcement of Faster-than-Light Neutrinos

Part of Einstein’s momentous work in the early 1920s was to propose that nothing can travel faster than light. Every experiment ever done since then has eventually shown that this is correct, as far as we can tell.

In 1987, a supernova happened in a neighboring dwarf galaxy (as seen from Earth). The neutrino burst arrived a few hours before the visible light counter-part, exactly in line with theory (that neutrinos travel slower than light, but they are unimpeded by the atmosphere of the dying star which is why the light was delayed).

In 2011, scientists at CERN announced the results of numerous runs of the same experiment that showed that neutrinos somehow seemed to travel faster than light. The difference in timing was 60 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is 0.000000001 seconds). But, their results were consistent over the course of 15,000 repetitions.

They had checked everything they could think of and debated the results within the team. Finally, they released a paper and held a press conference about the paper wherein they stated (paraphrased): “These are our results. We know this violates established physics, but we have tried everything we can think of to figure out where we might have made a mistake. Please help us and critique our work!”

If their results were real, and neutrinos do travel faster than light by the amount they measured, then the neutrinos from the 1987 supernova should have arrived at Earth years before the visible light counterpart. Not hours.

Media Missteps

With the decline of dedicated science reporters, science reporting in most media outlets has declined in quality over the past decade. Significantly. Media in general took the sexy headlines of “Einstein Was Wrong” and “Light Speed Limit Broken” and other such things.

What they didn’t report was that this is part of the scientific process. Work needs to be vetted and repeated before it is accepted.

Loose Wires

A few months ago (March 2012), it was announced that a possible source of systematic error was found: A loose cable. (Systematic error/uncertainty is something that will always give you the same relative offset in an experiment. This is in contrast to random error where you get literally random sources of error that crop up.)

Because of the very precise timing required in this experiment, a loose cable may seem innocuous, but it was enough to account for the difference.

In the time since March, the experiment has been redone many times and, today (June 8, 2012), CERN research directory Sergio Bertolucci presented results at a conference that shows the neutrinos travel at just under the speed of light.

Pseudoscience Already Grabbed It

Unfortunately, just as pseudoscientists hawking their latest perpetual motion devices still point to Pons and Fleischmann as having succeeded in creating cold fusion, already in the past few months several have latched onto the idea of FTL neutrinos to bolster their own line of beliefs.

I have heard from numerous, different people on some forums I monitor as well as the “venerable” Coast to Coast AM show saying things such as, “ESP exists because CERN scientists have shown that things can travel faster than light!” Or, “UFOs are aliens from other planets and we already know that they can get here faster than light because CERN scientists have shown that things can travel faster than light!”

Do I expect them to retract their claims now that the science has been corrected by the same people who made the claim to begin with? Of course not. But hopefully I’m wrong.

Final Thoughts

These scientists did not do science by press release, they vetted their work within the team and performed over 15,000 experiments. Even when presenting their work, they still didn’t believe their results and they were calling on the rest of the physics community for help. That was not the route taken by Pons and Fleischmann.

I think that this shows well how science is generally supposed to work when you have an extraordinary claim (Alex Tsakiris …):

  • Established physics theory borne out from hundreds or thousands of experiments.
  • A single new experiment suggests it’s wrong.
  • Experimenters repeat their experiment many times, and search for sources of error that would explain the anomalous result.
  • Not finding it, they publish a peer-reviewed paper about the work and ask the broader community for help.
  • Many people come in and try to figure out where the latest experiment may have gone wrong.
  • Course A: If they find the mistake, they retract the initial claims and the established physics is shown to still hold.
  • Coarse 1: If they don’t find the mistake, then an independent experiment must be set up that is designed to measure the same phenomenon and run. If it verifies the new results, then the established theory must be modified. If it doesn’t, then the original experiment remains an interesting anomaly to be explained but does not affect the established theory.

And that’s what happened here.

*Sorry folks, I know that I’ve been lax lately, I have no excuse other than work and other things that have taken priority. This blog is unfortunately not my tip-top priority. And the last three weeks have seen three astronomical events that have generated about 100GB of images I’m trying to finish processing (annular eclipse, lunar eclipse, Venus transit). And I’m behind on work in my day job.

August 5, 2011

With Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Is Newtonian Mechanics Irrelevant?


Introduction

I listen to a lot of paranormal and anti-science material. I do it to keep up with what “the other side” thinks and does. And get blog ideas. One such is the radio show / podcast is entitled “Dreamland” which “takes you to the edge of reality.” Or just past it altogether.

The show is run by Whitley Streiber with occasional guest hosts Anne Streiber (his wife), Jim Marrs (a huge conspiracy nut perhaps best known for his “work” on the JFK assassination), Marla Frees, and sometimes others.

Enough background — this post is about a side comment made by the Mrs. Streiber on the just-out Dreamland episode, “The God Theory.” In actuality, I had little issue with the bulk of the episode, it’s really Mrs. Streiber’s remark early on that got me and is the subject of this post. It also delves a bit into the nature of science.

The Remark

This statement starts around 1 min 35 sec into the episode.

Mrs. Streiber: “I know a tiny bit about quantum physics. I have a layman’s understanding of it which we’re all going to have to have eventually because the type of science most of us were taught in school – Newtonian – is not relevant anymore, it’s not the way the world works.”

Epsilon

I heard a talk given by the “Bad Astronomer,” Phil Plait, a few months ago, entitled something along the lines of, “The Final Epsilon.” Epsilon, actually epsilon (lower-case), is the Greek letter that looks like ε. In physics and math, ε is used to mean “a very little bit.” For example, I wrote a recipe that calls for 1 part butter, 4+ε parts peanut butter, and 8-ε parts powdered sugar. In other words, it needs a little bit more than 4 parts peanut butter, and a little less than 8 parts powdered sugar.

Dr. Plait’s thesis was effectively, in skepticism, what is our “final ε?” In science, we can never prove anything 100%. We can never disprove something 100%. Similarly, in modern scientific skepticism, we can never disprove someone’s claim 100%. Despite every debunked alleged psychic, we can never prove 100% that psychic powers are not possible.

The discussion during Dr. Plait’s talk was, though, at what point do we say for all practical purposes we have disproved something? After debunking dozens upon dozens of astrologers and their claims and their methods, even though scientifically I can’t say astrology is 100% Taurus (see what I did there?), I could say it’s 99.9999% bull. And if I’m so close, just 0.0001% away from absolute Truth, am I willing – for all practical purposes – to say that that is my ε and I have effectively proven it to be false?

Tying These Two Together

Now you might be thinking, “Gee, that’s fascinating and I love me some good calculus, but what does this have to do with whether Newton is okay or if I have to learn QM?” I’m glad you asked.

Another point that Phil mentioned in his talk is that the concept of the “final ε” is just as applicable to how we view the world through physics. Newton’s Law of Gravity works in our every-day world. It very accurately describes what will happen if I drop a screaming baby who won’t stop screaming in the middle of the night in the apartment above me bowling ball off a tall building. It very accurately describes the motion of the moon around Earth and through our sky. We use Newton’s laws to figure these things out and how a rocket will fly.

But Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong to some extent. Einstein’s Relativity corrects that very small error – an error that is only measurable with incredibly accurate instruments and/or when around very massive objects. But that is not our everyday world.

In gravity, Einstein was Newton’s ε. And likely, in the future, someone else will be Einstein’s ε. That’s the nature of science. It progresses as we learn more and more about the universe around us and of which we are a part.

That brings me back to Mrs. Streiber’s remark, which by now you have hopefully figured out why I took issue with it. Yes, Quantum Mechanics provides a more accurate model of the world. And if you wanted to and had supercomputers many orders of magnitude more powerful than today’s best, you could describe a common every-day object as an ensemble of wave equations (seeing as it takes weeks to figure out how to derive even helium – an atom with two protons – in QM class in college, this is not a trivial problem!).

But, if you do that, you will find that beyond all meaningful measurements, classical physics comes up with the same answer. Yes, quantum mechanics is necessary to describe some things in physics, such as the energy spectrum produced by stars, or the photoelectric effect. But it is not used to figure out how to drive a car from home to work, why a volcano erupts, or why a pen can lay ink down on paper.

Final Thoughts

No, Mrs. Streiber, Newtonian mechanics is still relevant and for most practical purposes it is the way the world works. The ε in Newtonian physics is not as large as you think.

December 22, 2010

ESP/Psi Effects Are Faster than the Speed of Light?


Introduction

First, this is going to be a short post – more of a musing. Many times when listening to or reading material put out by the “alternative researchers,” I will come across the claim of a psi experiment that seems to defy the universal speed limits of light. Could this be possible?

Speed Limits

Anyone older than 5 years living in a place with roads is familiar with the concept of a “speed limit.” You’re not supposed to go faster than it. If you do and you are caught by law enforcement, you can be fined or incur more severe consequences. But it’s more of a, “You’re not supposed to go faster than this” rather than, “It is not physically possible for you to go faster than this.” If it were the latter, then no one would get speeding tickets because their vehicle, by definition, could not exceed the speed limit.

Such is one of the key concepts behind Special Relativity: There is a “cosmic” speed limit where one of the physical laws of the universe are that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a given medium. In “empty” space, this is roughly 300,000,000 meters per second (or 186,000 miles per second as it is more commonly expressed for those who don’t use metric). The purpose of this post is not to get into the finer points nor evidences for Special Relativity, so suffice to say for the moment that it is a theory in the scientific sense — it has withstood every experimental test.

The one possible exception is the idea of “quantum entanglement,” where if two particles (as in not people, people are not made of one single atom or sub-atomic particle) are entangled, and one’s state is changed, the other will change instantaneously, faster than Special Relativity would seem to allow. This is part of the reason why relativity breaks down at quantum scales, while quantum mechanics breaks down at relativistic scales, and why unifying the two is one of the great goals of physics today.

Anyway …

Size of Earth

Earth is about 6378 km in radius. Its circumference around the equator is 40,075 km (24,902 miles). My point here is that 40,075 km < 300,000,000 m (24,902 miles < 186,000 miles).

In fact, light can go around the entire planet about 7.5 times in a single second. This is one of the few things I actually remember from watching a video in 3rd grade.

Claims

The psi claim will often go along the lines of this example I just heard on an old 2006 Coast to Coast AM episode: “A mother and child are separated by a vast distance, about 100 km apart, and the child is induced with pain by pricking them with a pin repeatedly. Amazingly, the mother, who is hooked up to an EEG, shows a response to the child’s pain faster than the speed of light would allow!!”

Let’s see … 100 km apart, and light travels at 300,000 km per second. So it took light 0.33 milliseconds (0.00033 seconds) to go from the child to the mother — and that’s assuming that we’re talking about some form of light that can travel through buildings. And let’s actually assume that we are talking about something that really could break this speed limit imposed by Special Relativity.

In order for this claim to be true, the following conditions must have been met:

  1. The person or machine pricking the child must be timed to sub-millisecond accuracy, preferably microseconds, but at least on the order of 100 microseconds.
  2. The mother’s EEG must also have resolution on the order of 100 microseconds. Based on this article, the best EEGs have resolutions 10x worse.
  3. The clocks at the two locations must also be synced and have resolutions better than on the order of 100 microseconds.

What’s the likelihood of all these conditions being met? And then, what is the likelihood that there was not an experimental error, as opposed to overturning other very precise timing experiments that have been done that verify Special Relativity?

Final Thoughts

When listening to shows and reading articles where people talk about ESP/psi research, this claim crops of fairly frequently without any real justification nor details into how the experiment was done and the actual controls on the timing. People do not seem to have a concept for how quickly light really travels, for they seem to ignore that these experiments would require the effect to be timed down to the microsecond across significant Earth distances. If you’re talking about a similar experiment done in the same building (say, 100 m instead of 100 km), then you would need timing resolutions down to the nanosecond.

When you hear these claims, they may sound interesting, but be skeptical and search further to see if – for lack of a better way of putting it – the person knows what they’re talking about. And in many cases, find out if the alleged experiment even took place.

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