Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Breaking the speed limit

When researchers at CERN announced last week that it appeared that they had found an instance of a neutrino traveling faster than the speed of light, it was only a matter of time before the woo-woos got involved.

I just didn't realize that "a matter of time" was measured in milliseconds.

Here is a sampling of some of the responses to this announcement that I found on various webpages the day the findings were released.  These are direct quotes, and no, I didn't make any of them up.

"This finally proves a mechanism for faster than light travel of information, and shows how telepathy could work."

"Aliens have had this technology for millennia.  Hopefully this will shut up all the skeptics when they talk about 'vast interstellar spaces' as if this would be a problem for a technologically advanced species."

"Faster than light particles (tachyons) travel backwards in time.  There will be tachyon pulse (reverse chronometry) in the future which will help us visit the distant past.  This is only the beginning."

"So what?  Quantum entanglement is faster than light, too.  It's all the same thing."

"There never has been an 'ultimate speed limit' on the ethereal realm.  Einstein's artificial distinction has begun to crumble."

Well, first, folks, I want you to know how much it took out of me to read all of this, not to mention copying all of the above quotes, which were selected from reams of such nonsense.  It leaves me feeling in need of some kind of mental restorative.  But being that it's too early for a shot of scotch and the coffee's not done brewing, I will just have to suck it up and soldier on with this post.

Second: are these people really safe to let outside unsupervised?  I mean, really.

Okay, let's clarify a few things, and leave behind telepathy and reverse chronometry (whatever the hell that is), and look at what really happened.  Here are the facts in the speed-limit-breaking neutrino case:

1)  The neutrino in question was clocked traveling 0.002% faster than the speed of light.  To put things in perspective, this would be like a cop pulling you over for driving 55.001 miles per hour in a 55 mile-per-hour zone.  So it's not like we're talking "Warp 8, Mr. Sulu," or anything.

2)  The potential for experimental error is enormous.  One of the questions that came up at the seminar where the results were reported was whether the moon's pull on the terrestrial crust was sufficient to warp the geologic plates and cause an error in the distance measurement.  With a small deviation from predictions like this, the likelihood that it is an unaccounted-for confounding factor is astronomically high.

3)  Also, it bears mention that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is one of the most comprehensively-tested ideas in all of physics.  While it's possible that Einstein could have missed something, it's not really all that probable -- experimental error is far more likely.  All of the hype that "this would rewrite the physics texts if it's verified" is correct, but still, I'm with Michio Kaku, who said about the findings, "I'm still putting my money on Einstein."

Regarding all of the woo-woos, it really amazes me that they have the guts to blather on about a topic about which they clearly are ignorant.  It's not that I'm claiming to know everything; there are many subjects on which I know absolutely nothing.  Take football, for example.  If I started babbling about the Boston Celtics' chances of winning the World Series this year, I'd probably end up making a fool of myself, so I leave such matters to people who actually know what they're talking about.

The aforementioned woo-woos, however, seem to have no such inhibitions, and in fact proudly trumpet their lack of knowledge in public forums.  And if they're challenged by someone who clearly has more knowledge than they do, they react with indignation.  One such poster, when confronted by a person who sounded as if he knew what he was talking about, used the Shakespeare card.  "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," he retorted.  By which, I think, he meant that any damnfool thing the woo-woos say has to be true, because Shakespeare said so.

Anyhow, the whole thing is kind of maddening.  And I predict that within six months it will be found that this measurement resulted from some kind of experimental inaccuracy, and will be withdrawn.  Nevertheless, I will end on a hopeful note, with my all-time favorite limerick:
There was a young woman named Bright
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.


  1. I am surprised the group from Cern made such an announcement until such time the data has been verified by repeated tests. Even if the present data holds to appear faultless, it still has to be successfully repeated by scientists other than those who performed it first. Michio Kaku knows better than anyone else to place your bets on Einstein considering he took up Einstein's work.

  2. We should run a competition for most outrageous attempt to shoehorn the press release into supporting a pre-existing bogus faux-mystical theory.