xkcd on neutrinos

By Phil Plait | September 23, 2011 7:51 am

I have a hard time thinking that my readers need to be reminded to read the web comic xkcd, but just in case, Randall Munroe chimes in on the faster-than-light neutrino controversy. Go read the comic now, since I spoil it below…

In fact, I agree with his idea, and said as much on Google+ yesterday:

So yeah, I’m skeptical. The fact that you’re reading this on a computer shows we understand a lot of physics pretty well, so the best thing to do here is to calm down and see what comes out of this. But I’d bet against it.

… and I’d win that bet either way. If I’m right, I make money. If I’m wrong, warp speed! Woohoo!

Scientist Brian Cox has an interview online where he describes why this is important, too.

We should have more news about all this soon, since the scientists involved are giving a talk in Zurich, and I’ll write up a review once I understand what’s what.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Geekery, Humor, Science
MORE ABOUT: Randall Munroe, xkcd

Comments (38)

  1. AliCali

    I read Brian Cox’s book, “Why does e=mc squared,” and he said that there is a cosmic speed limit, but it’s not necessarily the speed of light. It could be that the speed of light is almost the maximum speed, but it could be just a touch less if light has a dinky bit of mass.

    So perhaps photons have just a very, very dinky bit of mass, and the neutrinos have even less so it’s a little faster, but still not exceeding the cosmic speed limit.

    Actually, I should say that Cox cowrote the book with someone else, so perhaps it wasn’t Cox who specifically said that.

  2. Beelzebud

    I know of a few string theorists, who should now shut their mouths about climate research, and go back to doing their jobs.

  3. I´m really excited about the neutrino thing because it´s not a “Gentleman, we have a Stargate” thing from a docbrownesque type in a garage, it´s an anomaly, showing up in 3 years of data, collected by a respected group of Real Scientists.

    SO they are using the Scientific Method, and everyone is doing the right thing: Thinking about ways to Occam this thing, and the first logical step is to read the paper and repeat the experiment.

    I don´t think you can blame the geeks for all the excitement. As you yourself said, “WARP SPEED!” even the remote possibility of a way to bypass the c barrier brings up the trekker in everyone of us.

  4. Infinite123Lifer

    I learned of Brian Cox in 2009 in my honors “Religion in the 21st century” class. He literally said things that I had thought of, over and over and over and had explanations based on some science to influence his theories. I sat there awe struck listening to him. His intuitions were highly intimately held within me before I ever heard him or seen him speak. He would ask a question or two outloud in the spirit of good science and I swear I sat there and had some answers which could be considered debatable or testable. I don’t remember though cuz I was to flabbergasted to write anything down. However I was working on a paper titled “Imagination Realized” and in that paper I was calling the human state today “The Evolutionary Created Human Imagination”. When Brian Cox said he thought of past human state as “The Blazing Primate Imagination” I started laughingMAO in the middle of class like I was in “The Last Mimzy” or something. Whatever, I know, but its a true story.

    To quote somebody here based on how I feel about it (even if it is not apples to apples or even apples to oranges, but rather maybe probably apples and piano’s (by the way great analogy Joseph G, laughedMAO):

    —Per God Created the Integers:

    Carl Friedrich Gauss having calculated the sum of the angles of the triangle to be 180 degrees 0 minutes and 15 seconds or 1 part in 43,200 off of 180 degrees in working on his work for non-Euclidean geometry stated in 1831; after having learned of the Hungarian mathematician Janos Bolyai’s published works demonstrating the consistency of a non-Euclidean geometry; responded to Jano’s father Farkas:

    “To praise it would amount to praising myself. For the entire content of the work . . . coincides almost exactly with my own meditations which have occupied my mind for the past thirty or thirty-five years.” —

    Ok, i know that was a huge long shot. But hey I don’t want any money or fame or recognition. I would feel better about myself. But I am in it because I love it. I want the answers to manifest. And history shows answers come from some of the oddest places.

    It was surreal watching that show. It is not even close to the first time I have experienced this sort thing.

  5. meh

    Preach it xkcd! Protect the true faith from those uncouth dissenters with their “evidence” and “experiments”. Bah!

  6. ColinC

    This is something that Hawking said he regularly did. He’d bet against colleagues about his own predictions being wrong.

  7. Chris

    Maybe that’s why we don’t hear any radio communication from aliens. They are using neutrinos to talk to each other.

  8. Wintermute

    Today’s XKCD annoyed me. Yes, be skeptical. Falsify or reproduce the results. Invoke the scientific method.

    But flat out stating that these results cannot be accurate, because our GPS systems work is nonsensical. If the results were true, our GPS systems would still work. Then we’d simply have to come up with a better theory of how stuff works.

    What I want to say is: Munroe’s brand of skepticism in this case is the polar opposite of the ‘it has to be true’ uncritical believers. Both jump to conclusions without waiting for proper confirmation or disproval.

  9. John Nouveaux

    Oh man, I love the “end up in pointless arguments about Galileo” line! That MADE MY DAY!

  10. cass

    Quick question:

    Is there really some huge problem to physics if it turns out that some neutrinos have less mass than photons? The “speed of light” has always been the upper limit on speed for a massless particle, but there’s nothing that says that photons have absolutely no mass. If it turns out there’s a new particle with even less mass than a photon, what’s the problem?

  11. Kris Rhodes

    Munroe is correct about GPSs, but he is _not_ saying that their functioning proves the neutrino finding is inaccurate.

    He’s saying that even if the neutrino finding is accurate, this doesn’t mean the theory of relativity is incorrect.

    There is some substantial philosophy to be done about what constitutes a scientific theory as “correct” or not but Munroe’s view is certainly a respectable one–if a theory is a model, and the model predicts things extremely accurately, it’s misleading to say the theory is “incorrect.” It seems to many to make more sense to say something in the area of “it’s correct–as far as it goes.” The same could still be said for Newtonian mechanics! That theory isn’t “incorrect” it’s just not appropriate to apply it to a lot of phenomena we now know about that we didn’t know about back then.

  12. jearley

    I like the betting idea. I’ve been hoping to find someone who really, really believes the 12/21/12 is the end of the world and offer them some low sum of money for their house, title deliverable on 12/22.

  13. Brian

    Wintermute: I think you’re thinking of a different context for the cartoon than the one intended. The protagonist isn’t saying “these results cannot be accurate because our GPS systems work”; it’s more like “these results do not overthrow all of relativity because our GPS systems work” — how most online conversations about surprising scientific results go.

  14. BJN

    Just how would slightly fast neutrinos translate into warp drive?

  15. Wintermute

    Brian,

    Looking at the comic again, you seem to be right and I may indeed have simply read it the wrong way. If that’s the case I revoke my previous statement.

  16. Another thing to remember is that even the folks at LHC who are reporting the result seem to be doing so with an attitude of, “Welp, we know THIS can’t be right… but damned if we can figure it out. Little help folks?”

  17. Just how would slightly fast neutrinos translate into warp drive?

    It doesn’t directly, of course… but if this result turned out to be robust, it would significantly reduce my confidence that FTL travel is impossible. It does not at all lend evidence to the proposition “a warp drive (or whatever you want to call it) is possible,” but it does hurt some of the arguments in favor of the proposition “a warp drive is completely and totally impossible”.

    One simple way it does this: One reason I am extremely skeptical that FTL travel will ever be possible is because it screws up causality. We have both logical and evidential reasons to believe causality probability cannot be “screwed up.” But if neutrinos can travel even the teensiest fraction faster than the speed of light, then that’s proof that causality can be screwed up, and so that argument against the possibility of FTL disintegrates.

    I don’t think the result will hold, though. Either it will be some sort of systematic error, or else it will turn out that yes they were traveling faster than light, but not in a way that screws up causality.

  18. Tom

    @2 Beezelbud. I know! that Kaku guy drives me nuts, too!

  19. I can’t get anyone to take the bet, even offered 2:1 odds. Lots claim it’s real, but no one will put up the cash.

  20. QuietDesperation

    Flaw: actually getting some dude online to pay up a $200 bet.

  21. 8. Chris Says: “Maybe that’s why we don’t hear any radio communication from aliens. They are using neutrinos to talk to each other.”

    “This Island Earth” 1955. Or the book it’s based on, 1952.

    – Jack

  22. Joseph G

    You’re on Google+ now, Phil? Noodly appendage but you’re hard to keep tabs on! Between Twitter, YouTube, various podcasts, various guest columns, TV, this site, and now Google+… What’s a poor Phil-phile to do? I estimate that at this point I’m only catching maybe 65% of the Dr. Plait-ness that’s out there. Being an internet stalker is getting more exhausting all the time!

  23. Joseph G

    @3 cardoso: SO they are using the Scientific Method, and everyone is doing the right thing: Thinking about ways to Occam this thing, and the first logical step is to read the paper and repeat the experiment.

    I don´t think you can blame the geeks for all the excitement. As you yourself said, “WARP SPEED!” even the remote possibility of a way to bypass the c barrier brings up the trekker in everyone of us.

    Hear, hear!

    Hey, any Cochranes here planning on naming their next son Zefram? The timing’s about right, I think ;)

  24. Time to update that old limerick…

    “There was a neutrino from Bright…”

  25. Michael Swanson

    This is why I’m glad I about this on Discovery News:

    (paraphrase) “This is a fascinating find with wide-ranging implications if true. We’re waiting for our data to be reviewed by other experts.”

    And not on “regular” news:

    “SPEED OF LIGHT SHATTERED: MODERN PHYSICS WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING!”

  26. Nentuaby

    @BJN:

    There are mathematical solutions for warping space in such a way as to achieve effectively FTL travel while remaining, in physical terms, stationary. (The most famous is the Alcubierre Drive, though that’s not the exact one in mind here). The problem is that to initiate these constructs in the first place, you have to shuttle energy around at FTL speeds. If these results are true, they provide at least the faint glimmer of hope that the obvious bootstrap problem isn’t insurmountable.

  27. Ralph Siegler

    In neutrino astronomy, we claim to have correlated neutrinos with supernova SN 1987A, which arrived three hours before the light. this was attributed to time lag for shock wave to reach from core to surface of the star. But three hours before *that*, there was neutrino burst at Kamiokande II which was dismissed as not being part of the observed supernovae. One problem, the neutrino lead time is way too much for the nova if the 60 ns. per 450 mile is true, like 4 years for the 168,000 light-years if my math is correct!

  28. Gary Ansorge

    I don’t know about warp speed but if these studies are true, one(at least) of the string theories will get a big boost, especially those that posit multiple dimensions. One explanation for these anomalous results would be that the neutrinos are transiting in and out of other dimensions, which might also explain how muon neutrinos (the starting particles in this particular experiment) change type on their trip to the detectors.

    Man, this excites the heck out of me,,,

    Gary 7

  29. Joseph G

    @19 James Sweet: One simple way it does this: One reason I am extremely skeptical that FTL travel will ever be possible is because it screws up causality. We have both logical and evidential reasons to believe causality probability cannot be “screwed up.” But if neutrinos can travel even the teensiest fraction faster than the speed of light, then that’s proof that causality can be screwed up, and so that argument against the possibility of FTL disintegrates.

    I’m glad you brought up the C-word :)
    The nature of causality has always fascinated me – it seems so ironclad, and yet, unlike, say, FTL acceleration, it’s difficult to point to a certain process that “enforces” it (per the FTL example, we know that accelerating an object to the speed of light takes an infinite amount of energy because the effective mass of the object you’re accelerating also becomes infinite).
    I might be dead wrong here, but have there ever been any experiments that actually showed some physical principle that’s bound up in causality?

  30. meh

    @Joseph G

    If special relativity applied to all massive (mass-having) particles (this has been the operating assumption up until now),

    then plugging a greater-than-C velocity into the Lorentz transformation yields a negative time displacement (ostensibly meaning backwards travel in time).

    However, perhaps special relativity, more specifically Lorentz invariance does not apply to neutrinos (despite the fact that they have mass). This would mean that neutrinos could travel faster than light without “going back in time”, i.e. there would not be any new implications for causality.

    My question would then become “Why does Lorentz Invariance appear to apply to some masses but not others?”.

    (((btw this situation is different from tachyons traveling faster than light, since tachyons have imaginary-valued mass whereas neutrinos have real-valued mass.)))

  31. Joseph G

    @32 meh: Interesting. I’m in a bit over my head now, but I was under the impression that any process that transmits information can’t do so faster then the speed of light (so you have, for instance, quantum entanglement experiments that seem to show nonlocal simultaneous state changes, but they can’t actually be used to move information superluminally).
    So is this a consequence of the “light limit?” If Lorentz invariance didn’t apply to neutrinos, would this not bork causality? ‘Nother words, are relativistic limits the only thing keeping causality from being violated?

    /disclaimer: I fully and freely admit that I barely know what we’re talking about, so I hope I’m not wasting anyone’s time.

  32. Ann

    In his online interview, Brian Cox says that if the results hold up, it might suggest that the neutrinos in question traveled faster than time by traveling through an as yet unknown dimension. So the particle physicist went in search of the Higgs Boson ( or whatever it is) and ended up finding something that might be the first experimental indication that String Theory might be true. As Mr. Sulu would say…..Oh my!

  33. Gary Ansorge

    As neutrinos oscillate between types, they do so in the presence of matter(which Alexei Smirnov used to explain the discrepancy between the proportions of tau and muon neutrinos received from the sun).

    One thing that I’ve wondered about this oscillation is over what distance it occurs,ie, if the oscillation is instantaneous, there is no distance covered during that process but such “instantaneous” processes appear to be limited by the Plank time(10^-43 sec) and in that 10^-43 sec, where does the energy of the muon neutrino go? ,,,back into the false vacuum?,,,or into another dimension? ,,,and QM might dictate the “re-emergence” of that particle energy as a tau neutrino from the false vacuum some distance further on than its starting coordinates,,,said distance being sufficient to explain the super luminal observation we apparently have here, which also goes some way to explaining why the neutrinos from the SN1987a didn’t arrive on earth years ahead of the visible EM,,,they were traveling thru vacuum, so had no matter-mass effect(and no oscillation).

    Gary 7

  34. I might be dead wrong here, but have there ever been any experiments that actually showed some physical principle that’s bound up in causality?

    Not that I’m aware of, but if causality breaks down, it’s very difficult to come up with an explanation of the universe that makes any damn sense. It all becomes paradoxical and nonsensical. I’m not talking about “twin paradox”-type paradoxes, which seem like paradoxes but really aren’t; and I’m not talking about spooky quantum entanglement-type nonsensical, which is extraordinarily counterintuitive but still all works out mathematically. If you don’t have causality, then you wind up with “This statement is false”-type nonsense, except it’s making a mockery of reality itself instead of just symbols.

    You can always argue that there is some way to make sense of it all that we just haven’t thought of yet. But it seems awfully hard to come up with that.

    Add to that the fact that every time it seems like there is some loophole that allows us to get around causality, e.g. FTL travel, creating a wormhole, etc., it turns out not to pan out. (I realize my dismissal of wormholes may be controversial, but my understanding — correct me if I’m wrong — is that to make it work requires exotic matter, and IANAPhysicist, but I see no reason to believe exotic matter exists under any circumstances). It’s a conjecture, for sure, to say that causality must hold, but it seems a likely one. IMHO.

  35. SkepTTic

    Funny neutrino joke:

    The barman said: “Sorry, we don’t serve neutrinos here.” A neutrino enters a bar.

    from this article (he found it on twitter, not sure who came up with it)
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/24/einstein-e-equals-mc2

    It’s a pretty good one, along the lines of Heisenberg was driving down the highway and a cop pulls him over …

    Always good to crack one of these physics jokes, laugh hysterically and see if anyone else gets it.

    Which other good ones are there?

  36. Joseph G

    36 James Sweet: Thanks!You too, Gary.
    Er… I don’t really have anything to add :-P Still, I feel like I learn nearly as much from the comments as from the posts at times.

    @37 Skepttic: I think that only works with tachyonic neutrinos (if they exist) :-P
    But cheezy jokes, eh? Ok, now we’re on MY turf ;)

    A billion neutrinos walk into a bar. One says “Oof!”
    ______________
    A neutrino walks into an (actual drink-serving) bar. The bartender says “Hey, we don’t serve your kind around here!” The neutrino replies “Just passing through.”
    ______________
    A cop pulls over a subatomic particle. He walks up and says “Do you know how fast you were going?” The particle replies “No, but I know where I am.”
    (Ok, that one’s pretty close to the Heisenburg one) :)
    ______________
    An atomic nucleus is talking to her friends when she stops and says “Jeez I feel bloated. I think I put on another two electrons.” Her friend replies “Stop being so negative!”

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