Archive for December 2011
If you have been following science news news in the past few months you will know that scientists at the NFN-Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy reported they measured neutrinos, an elementary electrically neutrally-charged particle, travelling faster than the speed of light in a experiment.
This conflicts with Einstein’s models of General and Special Relativity that have been an accepted models of “how the universe works” for decades now. General Relativity bridges the gap between the small and the large in the cosmos and integrates gravitation into Newton’s principles of motion so that everything works. There have always been problems with General Relativity on a very small scale, like when it gets into quantum mechanics, but nevertheless has been pretty much accepted as fact by now.
In other words, General Relativity describes the interaction between space and time with gravity taken into account. A huge part of Special Relativity, a consequence of that being e = mc^2, is that nothing can exceed the speed of light, because any object that did so would have infinite mass, and it would take an infinite amount of energy to go that fast anyway. Light is pretty weird to begin, because it acts as a particle and a wave, and photons don’t really travel across space, if that makes sense, they more just emit from one place and appear in a destination. Anyways, that’s not really the point, just a little aside.
So did scientists in Italy just disprove the cornerstone of modern astrophysics and science? Probably not. And here is why…maybe…
The way this experiment worked was that a stream of neutrinos is released in Cern, Geneva (Switzerland) and travels through 732 km of rock and whatever else is underground before they are detected at Gran Sasso, Italy (neutrinos pass through normal matter like it is nothing). In order to measure the time elapsed they used super-precise clocks linked by a GPS satellite. What may have happened is that scientists overlooked accounting for the fact that the clocks are taking time relative to each other. So while the neutrinos are moving towards Italy and away from Cern, the satellite is also moving towards it (Cern)…I think. At least enough to account for the 60 nanoseconds scientists are claiming the neutrinos arrived sooner than expected. It was expected to take 0.0024 seconds and they arrived 0.00000006 seconds faster.
But because the satellites are moving, from their point of view, the positions of the neutrinos and the detector are changing. The neutrinos are moving toward the detector, and the detector appears to be moving toward the neutrino source. So the distance between the origin and destination appears to be shorter than it would if it were being observed on the ground.
“Consequently, in this reference frame the distance traveled by the [particles] is shorter than the distance separating the source and detector,” van Elburg writes. This phenomenon is overlooked because the OPERA team thinks of the clocks as on the ground — which they are, physically — and not in orbit, which is where their synchronizing reference point is located.
So, it turns out that Special and General Relativity is safe for now. I knew it had to be some sort of simple mistake, or in this case, something just went unaccounted for…but it would have been much more exciting if it had turned out to be true.
Information available at: BBC News, <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-15830844>
and the quote was taken from Popsci magazine, <http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-10/dutch-physicist-says-special-relativity-explains-faster-light-neutrinos>
I wanted to make a subtitle for this post: Finally, A Post About Science and Space but not NASA. This one is about the findings at the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, for short. Their long name, although it’s only a rumor, is the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Amazing Scientific Findings That Help Usher In A New Era of Understanding Where We Came From and Hence Where We Are Going.
It has always been hypothesized that our atmosphere was methane filled and nasty, uninhabitable, and unfit for life, and as that may have been true, the uninhabitable part, at least on the surface of the Earth, scientists have shown in a paper published this week that it was much the same as it is now. The significance of this can help us understand how life on earth started and answer the eons old question of “where did we come from?”
I do not aim to bore you with technical details, but basically they figured this out by taking a very old rock, a rock called a zircon, some are as old as the Earth itself, and they measured how much of a certain metal it contained. The metal, Cerium, exists in two states, one state more highly oxidized than the other, meaning it has reacted with another element and lost electrons in the process. The more highly oxidized Cerium the zircon contains is an indicator of the atmosphere at the time.
However, this runs contrary to the idea that early life would have a hard time…starting, for lack of a better term, with the current cocktail of atmospheric gases we reside in today. The highly methane concentrated atmosphere would be better as a catalyst for amino acids and DNA.
I am confused.
Also, in another disappointing twist, this did have something to do with NASA: it was funded by NASA.
The journey to talk about space, science, rockets and boosters without mentioning NASA continues…stay tuned….
Information found at Astrobiology Magazine. <http://astrobio.net/pressrelease/4373/earths-early-atmosphere>