Transport Me Up Into The Spaceship, Scotchy

The Doctor Is In T-Shirt, Funny Doctor Who Parody Shirt, Charlie Brown, Sci-Fi

I know you can’t really use “Swiss” as a noun, but at least I didn’t just say, “some Swede.” I have a feeling the Swiss and the Swedes have a sort of GoBots/Transformers style rivalry. Like they probably came out at roughly the same time, but one of them (I’m not saying which one, but I think you know) was clearly superior in terms of marketing and originality. I also get the impression the Prime Minister of Switzerland is an enchanted  swan that occasionally takes human form to hand out pastries to good children. Or maybe that’s just Bjork. She’s from Iceland which is either near and very much like Switzerland or not at all. I think they both have ice hotels.

So it looks like physics as we know it might just be a bunch of crap. You see, these scientists at CERN have been shooting neutrinos (not to be confused with the pseudo new wave/punk rock aliens for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) at Italy for some time (which seems like an act of war), and they appeared to be arriving shortly before they left. Well, not really, but they were appearing sooner than they should have. Sooner than light, in fact. Light shows up in Italy the the neutrinos are acting all casual, stretched out on the sofa, sipping a creme soda and being all, “Oh, hey light. I guess you finally decided to show up. I’ve been waiting for you for like 60 nanoseconds. I was about to call the police and make sure you hadn’t been murdered or whatever.”

I say all of that to A) Intimidate you with my obviously superior knowledge of science, and B) to say this: I guess we don’t really know anything about anything, and I find that kind of terrifying and exciting.

COMMENTERS: Do you believe the findings will hold up to scrutiny or be replicable? Do we need to start rewriting physics? Will this discovery finally get us to a world more like Star Trek? Can it please?

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  1. So far as I've heard, right now they're not putting these out as actual "findings"; they've come up with results, haven't found an error, and are begging peers to try it out (and even disprove it), because so far they're at a loss to explain it. I'm dubious that there isn't some error, but I guess we'll see!

  2. In my opinion (as someone who's drank his way through many a physics class), I would guess that the findings will hold up but won't be nearly as dramatic as they seem. When I first read the headline "Scientists discover faster than light particles", I thought it was going to turn out like the reports of cold fusion a few years ago — or other apparently superluminal particles that were, when you took the uncertainty in the measurements into account, perfectly obedient to special relativity.

    Then I saw that it's CERN, and I saw how carefully (and skeptically) they're proceeding. Based on that, I suspect that whet they've found is real; based on what I know of physics, I also suspect that it's an interesting (but not earth-shaking) quirk — probably not a huge shift in the way we understand physics. But that's basically a guess I pulled out of my ass based on what I know of physics — which is just enough to be aware that there is a great deal I don't know. Well, and enough to make me want to go back to school and keep going until I die in a vain but glorious attempt to learn everything.

  3. I'm gonna go with 'not so fast' and 'wait and see'. I'm all for shattering paradigms but more tests need to be done before throwing out everything we know about physics. I keep thinking that these scientists pushing these findings are just so uppity…what, Newtonian physics and Einstein just ain't good enough for ya? it got us to the moon and back. But that's just me being cantankerous and 1.0

  4. Well, the LHC, IS far more magical then your average science donut.
    From what I understand it's like a glazed science donut with extra magicy-science sprinkles on top and supposedly a fancy Higgs Boson-cream filling.

  5. As a Swiss (and a Genevan at that!) I can't tell if I'm supposed to feel insulted by that first paragraph or if it's just hilarious. ^^ Also, the Prime Minister of Switzerland? You do know we're not the UK, right? 😛

    About rewriting science and all that, the thing is, science isn't "knowledge". There is no absolute truth in science, we only have theories, and the way science marches on is by disproving old theories and coming up with new ones that can explain all known phenomenons.

    Now if these readings are correct, that doesn't mean the end of Einstein's theory and all of its applications. After all, don't we still learn in school Newton's theory of Gravity, even though it's technically "wrong"? There are things that we can calculate with this theory much more easily than with Einstein's theory and with the same accuracy. And then there are things that we can't. Like, we couldn't use GPS without Einstein. New discoveries like the one they made at CERN and Gran Sasso don't close any doors, they only open up new ones.

    We live in exciting times, I like that. 🙂

  6. You know, particle physicists could just make up a bunch of stuff and we wouldn't know the difference. I mean come on, look at the names for these particles and quasiparticles, fermions, bosons, phonons, trions, bon bons, akons, metrons, don juans, megatrons.

    Also, was it some new type of neutrino or was it the standard model?

  7. I believe that they are discovering that the laws of physics that work on a macro scale tend to not apply when you work on a subatomic scale. Which I believe they already knew. So, whatever.

  8. Well, I'm actually a neutrino physicist (and a big fan of HE), so I figured I'd throw in my 2 cents. It's exciting. It's probably just a mistake, because it's a lot more likely that someone mis-measured a timing offset from a cable than it is that special relativity is wrong. I read the paper and watched their presentation, they really did put the time in to check everything they could think of, and this is a serious analysis. Really impressive, actually. They found that the OPERA neutrino beam spills seemed to arrive 60 nanoseconds early. That's an insanely short time. Light travels 18 meters in that time. The OPERA collaborators have measured the distance between beam source and detector down to about 20 cm. That took a heck of a lot of careful work. They measured all the timing offsets in their equipment down to the nanosecond. Really, they should be congratulated, whether or not this result holds up.

    My actual prediction is that this result won't be explained, but it won't be reproduced either. It'll eventually (years from now) just be shrugged off as a mistake someone made, because all our other experiments disagree with it. This happens a fair bit. On the other hand, I'd love it if we did reproduce this result. It'd really shake things up.

    • As the daughter of a theoretical physicist, I concur. I will now share a terrible/awesome particle joke from one of my dad's college professors:

      Random student: "Okay, hang on…fermions and bosons, what's the difference?"
      Professor: "…It makes all the difference in the world!"

  9. Respectfully, please edit some of the text out of these strips. These lengthy bubbles make them more of a chore to read and kill any flow to the jokes.

  10. I was like, oh hey, they found tachyons! But I'm not a physicist; it doesn't sound like what they discovered is actually what tachyons are supposed to do (if they exist). Which is too bad, cause the discovery of tachyons would be all kinds of epic. I also predict it's likely a mistake, though I hope it isn't, but I love how basically every nerd webcomic artist is feeling compelled to make a strip about it. (That wasn't sarcasm, I think it's awesome.)

    Entirely unrelatedly, "Shooting Neutrinos" would indeed be an excellent name for a rock band.

  11. Mmmm…magical science donuts!

    And this:
    “Oh, hey light. I guess you finally decided to show up. I’ve been waiting for you for like 60 nanoseconds. I was about to call the police and make sure you hadn’t been murdered or whatever.”
    made me LAUGH OUT LOUD!

  12. Shouldn't new-trinos be faster than old-trinos?

    and as long as I'm getting Physics-al…

    Are very very small Microsoft spreadsheets "Particle Excel-erators"?

    And is a sub-atomic particle that looks like the butler guy on Magnum P.I. a "Higgins Boson"?

    And is the time spent watching Mary Poppins measured in "nanny-seconds"?

    Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all week. Or until the next break in the Space-Time Continuum, whichever comes first.

  13. Bah, Give it 12 months and some boffin will probably come out with an explanation like…

    "There's something called neutrino pressure; it wasn't actually the neutrinos CERN fired arriving that fast, they just pushed the Neutrinos that were already present forward, hitting the detector making it seem as though they'd travelled faster than they actually had. Think of it as running a race but winning because you were holding a stick in front of you the whole time so you technically cross the finish line first."

    Or some such shit… I need to find me some more whiskey.

    • That's actually pretty much what I was thinking. I just couldn't think of as good of a analogy for it, so just went with posting a donut joke instead.

      (I especially agree with the whiskey part)

  14. Quantum Mechanics is so flexible and basically inprovable. We need to stop spending money the science community doesn't have of big machines when most the the finding can be found by simply looking at space. with the right equipment. We need to ditch the confusion and science that can only beproved with tricky maths. (fudged from my Physics Teacher father and the New Scientist Magazine). DOWN WITH SUPER SYMMETRY!

    • An interesting point (or counterpoint) to your argument is that these big machines seem to have done your down with supersymmetry for you. I believe there was some article to that effect a month or so ago. So the big machine (which you pretty clearly don't want) beat out the tricky maths (which you also don't want). If your answer is "simply looking at space" without "big machines," I … have some bad news for you: how do you think we look at space? Hint: our telescopes aren't the ones you get at Wal-Mart for $50.

    • I have stolen/borrowed this from you and shared it with everyone I know, because it is hysterical and I can't stop laughing. (Also because occasionally I like to see which of the people I interact with get jokes like this. Helps to separate the wheat from the chaff.)

  15. Hi Joel!

    This is off topic, but I came here to say that my Three Wheaton Moon shirt made me popular at the Minnesota Ren Fest this weekend. I've never been popular off the internet before, it was disorienting but very nice. Comments ranged from "That is the scariest Wil Wheaton shirt I have ever seen," to "I didn't know they made that into a shirt!" (Hello to the other Hijinks Ensue reader I ran into, who took a picture of me!) Even my dad likes it, and he only knows Wil Wheaton from Leverage.

    So, thanks very much for making me cool!

  16. Just something that occurred to me. I'd be surprised if people who are way smarter than I am (and I think the folks at CERN are at least a little smarter than I am) hadn't thought of it and ruled it out:
    The Earth rotates. Maybe it rotated just enough between sending and receiving the neutrinos to throw off their calculation?

    • Earth rotates from west to east (that's why the sun rises from the east and sets on the west). Then by your reasoning, each time you jump stright upwards you land slightly westwards from where you jumped off, or a helicopter standing still in the air would seem to move to the west due to Earth's rotation.
      CERN fired their neutrino cannon from Geneva to Sasso, that's in the general east direction. Then by your reasoning the neutrinos should have arrived after when they were expected, not before.

      Everything that's on Earth rotates (and translates) with it, they share its movement. Those neutrinos were originated from a device moving with the planet, so they also have its velocity direction, and since both emiting and receiving ends of the experiment are also on Earth, that velocity component would cancel out in the end. Same way why you can throw a ball inside a cruising airliner without it suddendly speeding at 900 km/h the moment it leaves your hand.

      But hey, all this works down at the snail-like Newtonian speeds… not sure if it holds at relativistic speeds!

  17. This has actually been known for a while – it's how they DETECT neutrinos. They have a big pool of water, and when the neutrinos enter the water, they don't slow down – but, the speed of light in water is slower than the speed of light in a vacuum (the speed neutrinos always travel at, in anthing) causing a "photonic-flash" (or whatever you call the luminescent version of a sonic-boom) as the neutrinos "break" the light barrier

    So, the issue is not that the neutrinos are too fast, it's that the light is being slowed down in some manner – possibly due to being within a rotational frame of reference? (i.e. on a spinning planet like Earth)

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