[Update (February 13, 2012): The launch was a success! Congrats to the ESA for this achievement.]
The European Space Agency’s new launch vehicle, Vega, has its first "qualification flight" scheduled for Monday morning: the launch window is from 10:00 to 12:00 UTC (05:00 to 07:00 Eastern US time). ESA has a page where you can watch the launch live.
Vega is a smaller rocket, designed to haul 300 – 2000 kg payloads to low Earth orbit. It’s 30 meters tall by 3 meters wide (100 x 10 feet), so we’re not talking huge here. But this is a size needed for smaller payloads that don’t need huge thrust. This first launch will loft nine satellites in total: the AlMaSat demonstration satellite (30 cm on a side); another called LARES which is 390 kg in mass, designed to test an aspect of relativity called frame dragging (where a spinning object such as the Earth warps space by dragging it along with its spin, like a viscous fluid); and seven tiny satellites called picosats.
Given that this is the dead of night my time, I’ll watch it in reruns, but if the timing is more amenable to you give it a look! It’s not often you get to see the maiden voyage of a new rocket.
If you haven’t heard about the experiment that apparently showed that subatomic particles called neutrinos might move faster than light (what we in the know call FTL, to make us look cooler), then I assume this is your first time on the internet. If that’s the case, then you can read my writeup on what happened.
Basically, neutrinos move very very fast, almost at the speed of light. Some scientists created neutrinos at CERN in Geneva, and then measured how long it took them to reach a detector called OPERA, located in Italy. When they did the math, it looked like the neutrinos actually got there by traveling a hair faster than the speed of light! 60 nanoseconds faster, to be accurate.
Was relativity doomed?
Nope. In fact, relativity may very well be what saves the day here.
First, most scientists were skeptical. Even the people running the experiment were skeptical, and were basically asking everyone else for help. They figured they might have made a mistake as well, and couldn’t figure out what had happened. Relativity is an extremely well-tested theory, and doesn’t (easily) allow for FTL. Despite some headlines screaming that Einstein might be wrong, most everyone figured the problem lay elsewhere.
Most everyone zeroed in on the timing of the experiment, which has to be extremely accurate. The entire flight time of a neutrino from Switzerland to Italy is only about 2.4 milliseconds, and the measurement accuracy needs to be to only a few nanoseconds — mind you, a nanosecond is a billionth of a second!
The scientists used a very sophisticated GPS setup to determine the timing, so that has been the focus of a lot of scrutiny as well. And a new paper just posted on the Physics Preprint Archive may have the answer… and it uses relativity.
I’ve been getting lots of emails and tweets about a young man named Jacob Barnett, a 12-year-old who is apparently a math genius. He’s been getting a lot of press lately because he’s tackling some pretty heavy problems in astrophysics, including relativity.
I want to be clear that from the videos on YouTube and such, he does appear to have an extremely advanced grasp of math and science. I also think he has a lot of promise! However, science is more than just learning the equations. It takes insight that generally comes with time. Happily, Mr. Barnett has that time, and has a big head start with the basics.
Steve Novella tackles that issue very well at Neurologica, and I don’t necessarily disagree with anything he wrote there.
But I do want to talk briefly about the way Barnett’s story has been told by some media. I first saw it at Time magazine’s site, with the headline "12-Year-Old Genius Expands Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Thinks He Can Prove It Wrong".
Barnett may very well be a genius, and may very well rewrite a lot of physics… as, no doubt, future generations of genius scientists will. But one thing they won’t do is prove relativity wrong.
Bold statement? Not really. We know relativity is right. It may be incomplete, but it’s not wrong.
What I mean by this isn’t too hard to understand. Read More
In my long, long experience as both a scientist and an active skeptic, I have seen people believe in a lot of seriously, um, odd stuff. In many cases, it doesn’t matter how overwhelmingly the evidence is against them, or how even simple logic will unravel their tangled theories. They cling to these beliefs like a drowning man clings to a life preserver.
And even with all this, I have to scratch my head over Geocentrists.
These are people who believe that the Earth is fixed in space, unmoving and unmovable, and the Universe literally revolves around it. Without exception, in my experience, these followers of Geocentrism believe in it due to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Finding passages in the Bible to support this belief isn’t hard; Genesis is loaded with them.
However, like young-Earth creationism, the problem here is in that "literal" part*. If you take the Bible to be true word for word, then you have to deny a vast amount of reality, and almost everything we’ve learned about the Universe since the Bible was written.
That has not stopped some people, nor even slowed them down. A group of Geocentrists is holding a conference this November in Indiana. Called "Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right", it features a veritable who’s who in geocentrism — not that there’s a lot of them. The meeting flyer is presented above; click it to see the conference details. The conference website is full of all sorts of claims saying Geocentrism is real, science is wrong (except where it supports them; cherry-picking is something else they have in common with creationists), the Bible is the only truth, and so on.
Well, as you might expect, I have something to say about that.
As much as I’d love to attend that meeting — in much the same way I’d love to extract my own tonsils with a spork and a pair of pliers — I don’t need to. Geocentrism is so wrong, so amazingly wrong, that it falls apart with just a little thought. What follows below is a little thought.