I’ve received any number of emails from excited friends pointing me to articles in the news saying that particles have been discovered moving faster than the speed of light. Thanks everyone! My initial gut-response to the whole thing has been as given in the title of this post. My measured, scientist-response has been “this is extremely unlikely”. You see, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me at all, and I expect that the scientists involved will at some point find an error, or other scientists will fail to reproduce the experiment. But, let’s see what happens. The great thing about science is that it is not about what people believe. It is about demonstrating phenomena with reliable, repeatable experiments. (The experiments were done by the OPERA collaboration, and their preliminary paper is here. I don’t need to point to the news articles since every news outlet has a bit on it.)
It’s funny, I’ve recently been writing about this in a part of the graphic novel. Somehow I think that the speed of light is presented too much as a speed limit in popular discourse, and so people naturally keep thinking that there’s some way of violating the law, like you can on the highway, or that some things are not subject to that law, like motorcycle cops, or people in a hurry to get home to watch Madmen, etc… I don’t expect this to be terribly clear in the short time I have to type this between this and that, but I think things are better thought of not in terms of a speed limit, but rather in terms of the fact that it all has to do with the meaning of what space and time really are, at a fundamental level. Space and time work together in such a way so as to give meaning to things like position, and time, and how those things can change, giving us things like speed, acceleration, etc… Getting the laws of physics to work out nicely and be the same for everyone, regardless of their state of motion, leads to Relativity, which in turn leads you to realize that if you can get to the speed of light and go past it (which might not be what is implied in these experiments), space and time just stop really making sense. So it is not so much that you can go faster than the posted speed on the highway, if you try hard enough, but that if you were to try to go faster, the highway would stop making sense… it would, in a sense, have no meaning. (The alternative is that you take the retrograde step of admitting that there are some frames of reference for observers that are more important or special than others… That seems like a step in the wrong direction to me.) But anyway, since we don’t know exactly what the proposed mechanism might be whereby such faster than light particles can go faster than light in the reported experiments, it is too premature to worry about what it all has to say about the structure of space and time and so forth. My point in this paragraph is that ultimately, I think that discussing things in terms of speed limits is always going to lead to people wanting to “break the speed limit”, and so such stories capture the imagination.
Annoyingly, these sort of things get reported in a way that I think is not helpful. What is happening now is that everyone is talking about this only because editors decided that it is a chance to do the “overthrow the establishment” story, so in this case, “Einstein was wrong” is the mantra. This gives the impression that science proceeds in this dramatic “out with the old and in with the new” fashion, and that is all that is worth reporting. In reality, great science proceeds by building upon what has gone before, so if you are going to demonstrate that the speed of light is not a maximum, you have to explain how that fits in with all that has gone before, explain why it has not been noticed before, and explain how the entire framework of Relativity that lies at so much of the science we do and test every day can coexist with this new result. Hey, perhaps they will show that. I think it is unlikely, but let’s see. (One of my first thoughts was why did all the neutrinos detected from supernova 1987A not arrive quite a while before we saw the light from it, back in 1987….? etc., etc., etc.)
But the most worrying thing for me is that in case there is an error found and the result does not hold water (I’m not saying that will happen, only that I expect it likely) there will be no reporting in those same press outlets that it was an error after all, and so we’ll end up with yet more confusion about basic science out there, and so I’ll have to add “wasn’t the speed of light shown to be not so special?” as yet another question I have to stumble over while trying to explain something else.