Ludicrous Speed

577_Super-Kamiokande-Nucleon-Decay-Experiment-628x264

Something about the news last week that physicists running the OPERA experiment at CERN in Switzerland had released observations suggesting that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light left a bad taste in my mouth.  It wasn’t anything about the experiment or the admirable way the scientists had grappled with the results for months before releasing the news.  The nagging feeling was that I was playing the cop at a crime scene when my Dominican brothers would ask about it.  “Nothing to see here, move along, check back in a few months, or years, when the data analysis has been quadruple-checked and corroborated by independent experimentation.”

Sure, it was the correct and responsible thing to do, and it’s exactly the way the experimentalists who released the findings behaved by asking the scientific community to scrutinize their results and see if something could have gone wrong.  No amount of dazzling my brothers with stories of time slowing down, or beams traveling through the earth, or particles spontaneously changing from one form to another could assuage the feeling that I was being a bit of a wet blanket about the whole thing.

Some amount of weirdness comes into even the most mundane discussions of modern physics, but that doesn’t mean anything goes; physics is still bound by certain structures and principles, of which the inability to surpass the speed of light is one of the better established.  So while destroying the hopes of my brothers for warp-speed travel and light sabers and photon torpedoes, trying to propose such oddities of physics as curved spacetime, ubiquitous invisible matter, or even the possibility of extra dimensions (mathematical, not parallel) seems like a poor exchange.  As weird and wonderful as our world seen through the eyes of modern physics may be, it seems bound in a straitjacket compared to your favorite sci-fi or fantasy stories.  The prospect of being a cosmic hall monitor telling the teacher on imaginations run wild was not what got me interested in physics so long ago, but the idea of a vibrant order and structure that mirrored some deeper truth behind it all.

As with so many of my best thoughts, G.K. Chesterton said this one better. In his “Ethics of Elfland” chapter from Orthodoxy, he says,

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption.  It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork.

This contradicts our experience since “the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or the breaking off of their strength or desire.”  Our craving for excitement is a sign of boredom and dissatisfaction.  If what we were doing now were truly animated and joy-filled we’d never get tired of it.  In the same way, the orderly structure of the cosmos, where these conditions always lead to those results, is not a reflection of some cold, unthinking, inanimate realm. Rather it is a reflection of the living God, who out of all the unimaginable plethora of schemes for nature He could have chosen, and still could choose, gave us this one as an act of love.

The world He has loved into being is so beautiful and so irresistibly real that we can be lulled into the false sense that it could never have been any other way.  Our fantasies and stories, as wonderful and entertaining and exciting as they may be, will never live up to the glorious universe we live in, and the scientist’s role is not to discourage and quash the creativity of man, but to extol and proclaim the divine creativity that has no equal.

While my answer to my brothers was right, that we should take a wait-and-see attitude on these new observations, perhaps my presentation is what needed correction.  As far as we can surmise so far, the world is a more perfect place when Einstein’s theory of relativity and its universal speed limit holds.  Our first assumption must be that there is some mistake in the data, but if evidence suggests that the result is true then we’ll need to consider what this might reveal about a greater order in the physical universe that we hadn’t had access to before.  Either way, scientists will continue seeking to discover the rules to the most exciting game ever played, which God has never seen reason to be bored with.

Image: University of Tokyo, Water-filling of Super Kamiokande Nucleon Decay Experiment, April 23, 2006

You May Also Enjoy:

The Dmanisi Skull and the Narrative of Human Origins There are these jaw-dropping moments in the life of a scientist. . . You can feel in your brain how all these preconceived ideas you had start falling to pieces. So said neurobiologist Christoph Zollikofer in response to the discovery of a 1.8 million year old hominid skull at Dmanisi in Georgia. As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, this perfectly preserved “early human” skull provides evidence that a single hominid species, Homo ere...
A Higgs Boson by Any Other Name While in many ways physics is all about the numbers, you can’t underestimate the value of a good name. One academic tiff gone awry and you’ve got generations of math students annoyed that they have to learn about the key to describing oscillations (since they’re just imaginary numbers anyway). One poorly specified word and generations of people are using a deterministic and constrained physical theory to justify their anything-goes worldview (sin...
Rites of Spring Over the weekend, we passed through the vernal equinox, which means that (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) the days are now longer than the nights. With the increase in daylight comes higher temperatures, the melting of the snows that battered our landscape this winter, and the return of the flora and fauna that show nature at its liveliest. Every culture has some ritual to mark this arrival of spring and the rebirth of nature, from ...
Merciful Truth The truth about ourselves can be difficult to handle. We are reluctant to spend time alone in silence with ourselves and often go to great lengths to avoid it. We become busy—sometimes wasting time, other times with worthwhile activities—and we avoid allowing ourselves to come to rest. Unfortunately, we are not alone in this great work of distracting ourselves. Society as a whole and entire industries frequently give us a constant cascade of dist...
Br. Thomas Davenport, O.P.

Written by:

Br. Thomas Davenport was born in Mt. Clemens, MI, the son of an Army officer, and moved a number of times with his parents and older brother while growing up. Eventually he graduated from high school in northern Virginia, where his parents still live and attend Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. He studied physics at the California Institute of Technology and went on to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford University. On DominicanFriars.org