Friday, September 23, 2011

Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

So scientists in the ivory tower (well, tunnel, er . . .) have been launching neutrinos at a target deep underground and far away and have noticed an odd thing . . . neutrinos seem to be arriving faster than C, the speed of light (remember, E=MC^2?), that speed which is supposed to be, according to the Standard Model of physics, the immutable law of physics, and one that has held up quite well in its application to all sorts of things that now enrich our daily lives, from synthetic aperture radars to transistors to microchips and fiber optic lines.

The bright folks at CERN are now mulling these findings to see if there's a flaw in the research or an explanation that is due to some sort of statistical error or what not. If the findings hold up, people are going to really have to reconsider the foundation of physics, which can be exciting for a scientist.

Of course, such things (if the research holds up), remind us that a theory which is damn-near-held-as-fact sometimes turns out to be just a convenient shorthand that is not at all accurate at the margins and does not really explain things, however elegant the model. You know -- like that quaint orbital model of the atom we used to like to draw as kids in the 60s and early 70s with electrons orbiting the nucleus like some sort of miniature planetary system.

Kinda makes you wonder what other scientific theories are useful tools, but not quite right as to how things really work.



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