Light-speed doubt

February 27, 2012

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.

There’s gold in them thar neutrinos

August 20, 2008

So whats with the neutrino puzzle thing ?

A little while back I wrote an article about astronomical discovery space, and speculated on whether the golden age of discovery was over. I wrote a blog post about it too. My conclusion was that the best hopes for real discoveries was time, neutrinos, and the internet. Two out of three of those (time and the internet) are exactly where I have been putting my personal efforts. Neutrinos are tempting too, but thats big experiment stuff and I haven’t been in that club and don’t have the experience.

Since pushing that line, I had found myself cooling on the neutrino front. Amanda clearly detects atmospheric neutrinos, but no sources yet; IceCube may just, but even then it hardly seems likely to turn into a rich and diverse skymap, like X-ray astronomy. IceCube is already a cubic kilometre of ice – what more can we do ? Looks like a brick wall.

I got re-invigorated last week listening to two excellent lectures by David Saltzberg from UCLA. This was part of the SLAC Summer Institute on “Cosmic Accelerators”. You can find his talks uploaded here. (Scroll down to Aug 13th and 14th). There are lots of very good and ambitious projects going on, but some just seemed really fun, and potentially hugely promising. Do check out Salzberg’s talk, cos I might give you a slightly garbled version as this was all new to me.

The first thing is that radio Cherenkov can be easier to detect than optical. ANITA is an experiment on a balloon that flies high above the Antarctic looking for backscattered radio pulses from the collision of UHE neutrinos with the ice. Its effectively looking at over a million cubic km of detector. It has had a preliminary flight, with more to come. Even groovier is the idea of looking for radio pulses from the Moon. This has been tried by Parkes and by the GLUE project. There’s even a suggestion of using a Europa orbiter.

Next lovely idea is acoustic detection, in principle using huge volumes of water. Early attempts are being made by SAUND in the Bahamas, and ACORNE off the coast of Scotland. No GZK neutrinos yet, but these experiments are in early development stages.

Or perhaps we take Martin E’s suggestion, and just wait for some random person to suddenly say “Ow !! What was that ??”


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