Saturday, September 24, 2011

You're Killing Me

One of the worst things about being a science guy is that many of my friends, many of whom are well educated nerdy types, want to talk to me about science.

The problem is that they don't know much about it.

As I look more into our failing science education system, the more I realize it's not one problem. It's two. The first is that we haven't established a solid factual foundation. This is demonstrated in the numerous surveys demonstrating that we, as Americans, fail to correctly answer basic factual questions about science.

The second is that we don't understand the scientific process or engage in critical thinking about scientific topics*.

While many of my friends are nerdy enough to have a pretty good grasp on the basic facts, they're still dismal at the second. This morning, one of them posted as his facebook status:
For those of you who didn't notice, scientists have rediscovered yet another truth illuminated almost 100 years ago by the last epic genius to grace the face of this planet. Neutrinos, sub-atomic particles, move faster than the speed of light. This truth essentially invalidates Einstein's Theory of Relativity because Neutrinos are matter, which means that e=/= m(c^2). Tesla, man...where has all the true, selfless genius gone?

This is, of course, referring to the recent announcement that some scientists seemed to discover that neutrinos were exceeding the speed of light.

Let's take a review of what the actual scientists are saying here:
- Probably not. But maybe! Or in other words: science as usual.: Sean Carroll
- Faster-than-light travel discovered? Slow down, folks: Phil Plait @ Bad Astronomy
- We need it checked. We're very suspicious about this.: Brian Cox
- Don't Believe the Hype (Yet): Jennifer Ouellette
- This Extraordinary Claim Requires Extraordinary Evidence!: Ethan Siegel @ Starts with a Bang
- If true, then neutrinos from SN 1987a "should have arrived not a few hours early, but a few years, and there would not have been coincident arrivals at the different detectors on Earth.": Pete Coles @ In the Dark

Are you sensing a theme here? When faced with a spurious result that challenges a long standing, well established theory, scientists are extremely critical. They caution that the data be checked extremely carefully and, as the last link shows, they look to see what the implications would be and check to see if those are true too. That's not the response we're getting from the general public, which shows that we've failed to instill an understanding of how to analyze scientific results.

What we must do is weigh the new evidence against the evidence against it. As it turns out, the evidence for relativity (which requires that speed limit of light be firm) is pretty darn strong. It was first supported by the bending of light during a solar eclipse, but it explains the orbit of Mercury, the ability to detect muons created in cosmic rays, the orbits of pulsars slowing, gravitational lensing and redshift, space-time curvature observed by Cassini, and the results of Gravity Probe B.

That's a lot of experiments and confirmation to weigh against a single, as of yet, unconfirmed result.

So how about we keep that in mind.

* - Unless of course, it's to "critically analyze" them against fake "facts" in order to cast doubt on them like the Creationists want.
** - While this image refers to "neutrons", the initial name for neutrinos, discovered in 1930) was neutrons. When what we now refer to neutrons was discovered in 1932, there was confusion among the terms, and it was eventually proposed to rename the 1930 discovery to neutrinos in 1934. As such, the reference to "neutrons" here is likely actually referring to neutrinos, but I can't find enough information on this quote to confirm it. It seems to mostly pop up in quack science references about perpetual motion machines.

1 comment:

Stephen Uitti said...

As i understand it, neutrino speed depends on how they are produced. Perhaps in supernovae, neutrinos always travel very very close to the speed of light. Perhaps the CERN experiment produces slightly faster models. That said, FTL neutrinos seem unlikely. How many neutrinos are detected? Probably not very many. How does one know, in principal, if the fastest ones came from the expected source? It's not like we have a neutrino shield. Are we sure when the neutrinos are emited? Still, 60 nanoseconds is a long time. 60 feet is a long distance. But perhaps we don't hear from space aliens because they all talk to each other with FTL neutrinos. I'm no expert. I mean, i suppose i know space aliens as well as anyone.