Nov 20 2011

The Latest from CERN: Did Einstein Blunder?


The detectors of the OPERA experiment to measure neutrinos rise from the floor of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics INFN's Gran Sasso Laboratory (credit: AFP - Getty Images)

In late September 2011, scientists at France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory fired a beam of neutrinos 454 miles (730 kilometers) underground from Geneva to Italy. Their preliminary results suggested that it traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than light.

The researchers, part of the OPERA collaboration, have now reevaluated their analysis and repeated the experiment, this time using very short beam pulses from CERN.

OPERA stands for the “Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus.” CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The name is derived from the acronym for the French Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research, a provisional body founded in 1952.

The researchers fired high-intensity, high-energy beams of muon neutrinos from the CERN SPS accelerator in Geneva toward the LNGS underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, 454 miles (730 km) away. They then measured the speed at which the neutrinos traveled.

New Scientist reports that one of the main concerns from the original September analysis 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 much smaller number compared with the 16,000 hits in the original experiment. Luca Stanco of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Padua, Italy, is quoted as saying the tighter particle bunches made those hits easier to track and time: “So they are very powerful, these 20 events.”

TechNewsWorld reports that the latest batch of experiments resolves two questions raised previously by OPERA physicist Ethan Siegel: whether the results of the first batch could be a statistical fluke, and whether the neutrinos detected were biased in some way.

The new results narrow the possibilities down to two, Siegel said: either “neutrinos can indeed travel faster than light,” or there’s a “systematic bias” in the way the OPERA researchers are measuring the transit time for the neutrinos.

Two other groups of researchers will seek to duplicate the Gran Sasso results: Japan’s T2K (Tokai to Kamioka, Japan) experiment and the United States’ MINOS experiment.

T2K’s J-PARC facility will produce an intense off-axis beam of muon neutrinos. The beam is directed towards the Super-Kamiokande detector, which is 295 km away.

The MINOS Experiment is a long-baseline neutrino experiment designed to observe the phenomena of neutrino oscillations, an effect which is related to neutrino mass. MINOS uses two detectors, one located at Fermilab (near Chicago), at the source of the neutrinos, and the other located 450 miles away, in northern Minnesota.

The researchers say that if there are problems with the distance or time delay from CERN to the Gran Sasso Laboratory, T2K and MINOS should not have the same problem.

The speed of light was established as “the cosmic speed limit” in 1905 by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, widely believed to preclude time travel into the past or travel to other stars.

Einstein CERN

Albert Einstein (credit: AP)

While neutrinos are able to traverse planets and walls of lead like light through a window, there has been no reason to suspect that Einstein’s theory should not apply to them as well.

In 1929, Einstein called called his cosmological constant — part of his modified field equation — his “biggest blunder.” He introduced the constant in general relativity theory as a force that keeps the universe stationary. In 1998, new findings showed that the universe is accelerating and that in general Einstein’s “blunder” wasn’t a blunder at all.

MSNBC quotes physicist Michio Kaku, host of the popular Sci Fi Science series: “If [the OPERA] result holds, and I kind of doubt it, it means we’ll have to rewrite all of modern physics. Einstein has come out ahead every single time. However, this time you’re talking about the largest particle accelerator in the world registering a significant deviation in relativity.”

Did Einstein blunder when it comes to neutrinos? Can neutrinos travel faster than light? Columbia University physicist Brian Greene shares Kaku’s healthy skepticism, saying he would “bet just about everything I hold dear that this won’t hold up to scrutiny.”

Oct 07 2011

Against “Consensus”

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions that differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.
Albert Einstein

You hear the word Consensus a lot these days. It’s used over and over all over the web as a means to try and end discussion on any number of topics, and to give the person using the word a sense of “superiority” for “defending consensus.” It’s been used to justify Wikipedia editing wars, with “Defenders of Consensus” preventing “Crackpot Loons” from modifying articles with information on nearly any topic that “Consensus” says is “wrong.” It’s justified over and over with such defenses as: “Well, a majority can’t be wrong!” or “Most scientists agree” or “Consensus is a vital tool of science!”….

The problem is that history shows repeatedly that Consensus is meaningless in science. Ptolemaic “epicycles” were “consensus” for centuries, but two scientists, both labeled “Crackpot” by their peers, proved “consensus” wrong. Copernicus had a play written about him called “Morosophus” or the “Foolish Sage.” Galileo was tried by the Inquisition and forced to “recant” as a heretic. Both were brilliant men, but they dared to “go against Consensus” and were mocked and ridiculed for it. But despite this, they still proved “Consensus” wrong.  Louis Pasteur also faced such mockery, with his “germ theory” when “Consensus” believed in “spontaneous generation”, yet every child today is taught the germ theory of disease, and not that rancid meat turns into maggots. Antonj Van Leeunhoek faced it for his “little beasties” until his microscope proved their existence beyond a doubt. Even Albert Einstein faced such opposition in his early years before his theories became “accepted fact” (despite still being a “theory”)

I could probably make a book listing the examples in history of the “giants” of modern science and how each of them had to “go against consensus” in order to get their theories examined, and the battles that were fought before the evidence was accepted, but that’s not really my point. It’s that historically, “Consensus” has never been a “help” to science, but is instead a “hindrance.”

Why? Because science is about asking questions, while consensus is about demanding that you not question. It’s a blind appeal to “authority” in order to silence questions, a blunt force demand that you cease thinking and accept the status quo. It has nothing to do with “science” and everything to do with enforcing the “will of the herd.” It is a demand that you “BELIEVE!!!!!!!” instead of an appeal to logic and evidence.

Yet everywhere you go online, regardless of the branch of science under discussion, you will be exhorted to “accept Consensus” as incontrovertible fact, regardless of evidence for or against. If you just so happen to be in possession of evidence of any sort that disagrees with “consensus,” it’s not even possible to have a rational conversation and discuss said evidence. It is automatically dismissed as “crackpottery” or “craziness” or “idiocy,” and for having dared to examine it you might find yourself called a “denier,” “insane,” or “superstitious.” In almost every case, you will find staunch refusal to examine said evidence or even worse, a statement like “Well I checked Google and consensus says such and such, so you are (insert insult here).”

I’ve often asked people why they have such a hard time discussing differing opinions without resorting to juvenile name calling; why two rational people can’t rationally discuss differing conclusions based on examination of differing evidence without there usually being one who will question the sanity of the other for daring to have a different opinion. I’ve yet to get a good answer.

Why is this? Well, recent research has revealed that people don’t actually act rationally as a general rule. No matter what they might like to think, when faced with a “challenge” to a deeply held belief, the normal instinct is rejection. What that belief is tends to be pretty meaningless, but when faced with evidence that their beliefs are not as “true” as they believe they are, sticking your hands over your ears and going “lalalalalalala” is an automatic first response. It’s instinctive to reject the possibility that you might be wrong, and it makes no difference if you are discussing a religious belief, a political one, or a scientific one. The “appeal to consensus” is thus “I agree with these people, and so do a lot of others, so that must mean I am right and this evidence being presented is thus wrong.”

You might have heard of a recent story about neutrinos traveling faster than light? The OPERA project is one of the most precise experiments of its kind, with numerous scientists checking and double checking all the data and equipment for accuracy. We’re talking as close to fementometers as they can get levels of precision. And before releasing the report, they exhausted every single other possible cause before asking the world community “prove us wrong!” They want to be proven wrong because their experiment “goes against Consensus” that states that nothing can travel faster than light. They don’t want their evidence to be right because it means that consensus is wrong. They released their findings with a plea to the science community to find “where they went wrong;” rather than saying “this evidence indicates the possibility that the reigning theory may not be complete” despite the fact that even Einstein himself was unsatisfied with his theories and considered them incomplete.

And what was the immediate result? Well on “Next Big Future” where I read the article first, the replies were filled with “they must have been stupid” responses… you know, the kind where the competence of the scientists in question is challenged rather than the results. These are CERN researchers. I have every confidence in their competency, and doubt that such basic errors as “they measured wrong” or “they didn’t take into account the curve of the earth”, or “they didn’t account for vibration” were responsible for their readings. Even Fermilab stated that it would take a “year or two” to upgrade their instruments to the sensitivity of the CERN ones and re-run the experiment, which indicates that the OPERA team had the best, most precise, most accurate instruments available. But rather than examine this data, it was nearly universally dismissed as “wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong!!” because “Consensus” said it had to be wrong. (one exception I’ve found is here.

This is not science. It is, indeed, the furthest thing from science imaginable.

It is however, a pattern seen commonly in another universal human institution —Religion. “Consensus says” is no different than “God says” in its basic semantics. It’s an appeal to “higher authority” to make an argument seem to not just have a weight of evidence on one’s side, but “moral force” — in essence making anyone who “questions the faith” a heretic who deserves nothing but ridicule and derision and hatred lest he “poison the minds” of the faithful with things like evidence and lead them “astray” from the “one true path.” Indeed, in a recent “discussion” I was told this flat out: “Because you are a blogger/writer and your words have impact, You can potentially skew the opinions of thousands of people (millions if you somehow became a famous figure) and make life very difficult for those of us who are actually trying to be constructive about climate change.”

The “variation” of my views on climate change from consensus is probably less than a few percent. The chief difference is that after nearly 20 years of reading evidence from all sides in the “debate,” I have failed to reach the conclusion that “man” is the single *sole* cause of climate change as there is sufficient evidence that said changes were occurring prior to the “Industrial Revolution” to conclude it is a natural event made significantly worse by mankind and initially caused by mechanisms other than “carbon pollution”. But because “consensus” says that man alone is responsible, I was branded a heretic. I had to be “corrected” lest I spread a dissenting opinion to consensus, however slight.

It’s not my job to “make life easy” by not asking questions or doing my own research and reaching my own conclusions. As a rational human being, it’s my duty to ask questions, find answers, and if those answers later prove incorrect, or flawed, it’s my duty to reject them and find new answers. I have always gone where the evidence leads, not where consensus demands I follow. As a believer in “Science” I cannot “accept things on faith” because a “higher authority” tells me too. And that includes even “Consensus.” I freely admit that I might reach a wrong conclusion, but if I do so based on evidence, and if I have to change my conclusions when different evidence is discovered, such is life in a universe we are still learning to understand.

But please, don’t simply take my word for it. Because as a rational human being, it’s up to you to do your own research and seek your own conclusions. If you simply accept my opinion, then you are simply joining another “consensus.” If you refuse to simply blindly accept “consensus says” as a reason, but demand evidence, study said  evidence, and draw your own conclusions from said evidence, then like Isaac Newton, you can say “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Even Albert agrees:
He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.
Albert Einstein

Sep 27 2011

“And Now, Faster-Than-Light Culture”

Last week’s discovery at CERN of neutrinos traveling faster than light – poetically announced on the autumnal equinox, when Venus goes direct in Scorpio as the evening star and Persephone emerges from the Underworld in our mythic imagination – has physics forums buzzing about the possibility that this is “solid” evidence of long-hypothesized additional dimensions.

This is big news.  For the first time in the modern world, the existence of invisible spatial dimensions is in the public discourse.  Science is the closest thing much of the literate planet has to religion these days, and this is far closer to the otherworldly transcendent mythos of early cities than the heady, highly existential relativity physics delivered to us from on high
by Einstein.

Truly mystic physics is making a comeback in the inevitable revelation that quantum “entanglement” only appears “spooky” when we think of each object-process as a distinct individual, rather than a nexus of pattern-vectors in space-time intersecting with every other in an endless fractal gem of co-causative influences.  The increasing number of DMT-initiated mathematicians and psychologists speak like gnostic sages about hyper-dimensional organisms that appear discontinuous to three-dimensional vision…while so-called “visionary” physicists and cosmologists argue that hyper-dimensional elements may constitute “dark matter” (the exact kind our best smashers, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, are not going to detect).

We call certain unusually “far-seeing” people visionaries, but the word reveals more about our own media-conditioned preference for visual stimulus, still on its way out in an age when video content is a miracle reminder that we evolved for oral traditions, than it does about those minds able to articulate these dimensions – not higher, but along an other axis entirely – in a way more familiar to us.  CERN won’t find these invisible landscapes for the same reason that shooting a laser pointer through smoke reveals only shifting line segments, not the full arabesques of drifting incense.

At any rate – sub- or super-luminal – Einstein is never going to be proven “wrong.”  Relativity theory is ultimately a statement on what we can and cannot perceive as embodied animals – a sibling to Cubism and Literary Deconstruction, not an attempt to build from its own realization of plurality into a model of resonant synchrony.  His work will not be replaced but engulfed, just as once free-swimming bacteria now live on symbiotically as mitochondria in our nucleated cells; just as agriculture was packed away into the belly of industrial society; just as we still have a place for the flying rocks of Newtonian dynamics within the greater explanatory atmosphere of plasma cosmology.

Relativity, though, is the study of relationships between things, not the omnidirectional unified theory for which it left us groping – much in the same way that the fad of deconstruction bottomed out and eventually even hard-line postmodernists like Foucault went looking for something sincere to believe in.

We as living creatures have sensory systems that evolved to notice differences.  We will continue to see two things, and call them two things, for the purpose of making our way in the world.  But this is not the perspective that will unify physics; Einstein himself said that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  In order to see the dynamic super-fractal that heals our “optical illusion of consciousness,” we need to take a step sideways from Einstein’s laser-like insights, out of the planar view of the discrete individual, and witness an endless pattern of inter-flowing in which everything contributes as both cause and effect to everything else – more a living creature than the static “hologram” of David Bohm‘s own unification attempts.

The next step in physics is to contemplate the full implications of a fractal paradigm, to recognize the Copernican likelihood that we are not the highest order of conscious complexity but are quite probably living as cells inside the body-mind of Something Greater, and that it too lives in Something Even Greater…no “First Cause” or “Omega Point,” except as perspectival artifacts like the horizon.  Just as ants appear to us as living in three spatial dimensions but cognitive experiments reveal that they only experience width and length, we too are almost certainly unaware of our own relative ability to climb “over the rock,” as it were, and not just walk around it.  Faster-than-light neutrinos aren’t moving faster than light.  Just like “quantum tunneling” electrons, they’re impishly pointing the way through a door into another dimension, beckoning us through.

And we seem to be on the verge of confronting this new reality, this encounter with the transcendent unknown, on a mass cultural level.  As increasing numbers of us spend all day immersed in the ethers of cyberspace – as shared experience becomes more spontaneous, immediate, and rich, and the boundaries of discrete selfhood are called into question – it gets easier to see how cultural historians like William Irwin Thompson argue that the spirit world is again an inescapable aspect of modern experience.

This discovery at CERN is a perfect expression of the zeitgeist.  Instant messaging seems more and more like telepathy with training wheels.  Reincarnation is rewritten as the nonlinear resonance of DNA crystals in one body with anothers, no more “entangled” with one another than two harmonics on the same carrier wave.  The mythology of television is recast as a story of spiritual possession, finding obvious parallels with both Plato’s allegory of the cave and our swiftly-approaching ability – courtesy of population biology and cognitive neurophysiology – to watch collective brain scans in real-time as memes mutate and reproduce across an entire population.

It’s the historical channel down which we started rafting as soon as we saw the first photographs of Earth from orbit.  Now we’re in the class-five rapids when that sense of planetary solidarity hits us just in time for us to synchronize our paddling, before we fly over the event horizon of that waterfall just ahead – this thing we’ve alternately called “Singularity” or “Apocalypse,” the moment at which we all acknowledge a new level of selfhood and a new level of collective, unified by our common experience of the tremendous mystery in which we’re all participating.

It’s not the End of the World; it’s the end of the End of the World.  Electronic communication and “light-speed culture” is about to be upgraded.  Get ready for time-space, teleportation, instantaneity, immanent infinite, galactic super organisms, and a newly-humble immersion in wonder as the human species takes our tottering first steps into faster-than-light culture.

Paleontologist turned performing philosopher, Michael Garfield‘s multimedia maps of the evolutionary landscape and our place in it are an attempt to demonstrate that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice.