Monday, September 26, 2011

Newton, Einstein... Ereditato?

    The tales science tells about the universe star one steadfast hero: the velocity of light. With Einstein, the space and time of Newton's day lost their uniformity, even the solid idea of matter melted into air. But the steady speed of electromagnetic radiation (the c in E = mc2) proved a sturdy enough foundation stone for the old genius to be able to reconstruct physics, and thereby rescue basic notions of cause and effect. Now Professor Antonio Ereditato, a man with singularly apt initials, is reporting that the tiny neutrinos that his team have been blasting under the Alps have clocked up a superluminal pace. A mistake? Very likely, which is why Ereditato and co are releasing their data in the expectation that someone out there will find a flaw, and restore the conceptual order. But what if the finding, which is based on 15,000 observations and has passed all the ordinary statistical tests, is instead confirmed? That would be insensible, which is to say profs would be muttering "does not compute"; but the history of science cautions against branding it unthinkable. That was once the verdict passed on heretical talk of the Earth spinning round the sun, as opposed to the other way round. Recall, too, that it was the then inexplicable Michelson-Morley experiment which encouraged the spread of Einstein's early ideas, and the baffling perihelion precession of Mercury which lent support to his general theory. The first thing in science is to face the facts; making sense of them has to come second.

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