So, as some of you have noted, I haven’t had a great deal to say for quite a while now. Lots of reasons, some obvious (how many times can you say the Republican Party is a death cult? All of them, Katie, I guess), some relating to just life stuff, but it’s past time for me to do my part here.
I do have some posts brewing on some present-day stuff, but I got a message today that someone had commented on my long-dead site, The Inverse Square Blog, which led me back to some of the stuff I’d written in the deep recesses of time, when Megan McArdle was my favorite target.
I’ve given the McArgle-Bargle beat up, as I’ve grown tired of cutting off hydra-heads, and the piece I’m resurrecting here is actually a column I put up at ScientificAmerican.com back in the day (2011). I’m reposting it here as a conversation starter, because though the question it discusses is long settled, the dynamic behind it is very much still with us.
Bit of background. A neutrino experiment collaboration called OPERA announced in September of 2011 that its instrument had detected neutrinos traveling from the CERN particle accelerator in Geneva to the OPERA in Gran Sasso, Italy faster than the speed of light.
This was huge news at the time, but most working physicists had little confidence that the result would survive–not because the Opera team were bad scientists, or because there was any fraud involve, but because of…well, that’s what’s discussed in the piece.
The result was shown to be in error by late spring, 2012, and the claim was withdrawn. I wrote my piece before that happened, because it seemed to me to be a great example of science working as it should–and as a way to see science as a daily, lived, human experience. That view of a process engaged with all the flaws of our species that nonetheless can reliably produce lasting, comprehensible results is a theme I’ve written about a lot. A large part of my interest in this area comes from the fact that this understanding of science as both a process and its results is completely at odds with the malicious parody of science the right uses to wreck the application of reason and experiment to the bettering of the human condition. The example I give in the piece you’ll find below the fold is the hardy perennial, climate change denialism; we’re seeing the same moves now with the weaponized politicization of basic public health (and molecular biology, for that matter) around COVID.
La lucha continua.
So, below the fold find more, and treat this as a thread for conversation about whatever that provokes, or anything else at all.
I’ve been doing a little poking around the matter of the Italian Grand Prix (neutrino division). Plenty has been written about this already, of course, but what strikes me a few weeks into the story is how effectively the response to the announcement of a possible detection of faster-than-light neutrinos illustrates what actually goes into the making of a piece of science. That, of course, also sheds light on,what it looks like when the intention is not to create understanding, but to obscure it.
First, to the neutrinos themselves. For many of the actually knowledgeable folks I talk to (i.e., not me) the question about infamous Faster Than Light gang of neutrinos is not if they’ll be found out, but when.
That is: while the experimental technique reported in the OPERAmeasurement is good enough to be taken seriously, many physicists note that challenges to special relativity have a very poor track record. A number of other observations would have to be radically reinterpreted for the measurement of the travel time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso to stand up as an authentic discovery of faster than light travel. See my earlier post on this subject for a bit of background and some useful links.
An example: the OPERA result, if it holds up, would complicate (to say the least) the interpretation of the hugely wonderful detection of neutrinos emitted in the stellar collapse that produced Supernova 1987a. As the parent star of the supernova collapsed, the catastrophe produced 1058 neutrinos, give or take a couple. In what was dubbed the first triumph of neutrino astronomy, three detectors at widely separated locations detected a grand total of 24 of those (anti)neutrinos, all arriving within 13 seconds of each other.
Those neutrinos did reach planet earth before light from the supernova blast arrived. But that quirk of timing has nothing to do with faster than light travel. Rather, it turns on the details of supernova physics. Neutrinos are produced in the initial stellar collapse, and because neutrinos interact with basically nothing — they are untouched by either the strong nuclear force or electromagnetism — the supernova-neutrinos sped out from the dying star more or less at the moment of the blast. Light, by contrast is electromagnetic radiation – and readily interacts with charged particles.
That property caused the light of the supernova to crash around the interior of the evolving supernova explosion as photons interacted with all the extremely electromagnetically energetic matter at hand – a dance that held them up for a time. After a few hours, that light escaped from the interior of the supernova blast and could begin an uninterrupted journey our way. But by that time, it lagged behind the neutrino signal, which is what produced the gap between the neutrino and optical detections of the event.
Think of it as gridlock in the midst of a stellar rush hour — an obstruction 1987a’s neutrinos, riding on (highly metaphoric) rails, were able to avoid. The fact that the two signals arrived only hours apart simply means that the neutrinos travelled at or very close to the speed of light — not faster than. If the neutrinos traveled faster than light – even at the rather small excess suggested by the OPERA experiment — they should have arrived much earlier than they did – four years or so before the light from the explosion.
Now there is a way out of this seeming contradiction, because the supernova neutrinos were significantly less energetic than the ones measured in the OPERA experiment — so it’s not accurate to say that both results can’t be true. But even so, were superluminal neutrinos to prove to be real, then whatever new physics that might be invented to explain the result would have to do so in a way that still allowed Supernova 1987a’s neutrinos to behave as observed.
That’s the problem for any challenge to a fundamental pillar of knowledge: if the new observation is correct, it must be understood in a way that accommodates all the prior work consistent with the older view that is under scrutiny. As physics popularizers always note: Einstein’s account of gravity — the General Theory of Relativity — delivers results that collapse into those of Newton’s earlier theory through the range of scales for which Newtonian physics works just fine. If it didn’t, then that would be a signal that there was something wrong with the newer theory.
Hence the stakes here. Given that special relativity — the concept at risk if superluminal neutrinos turn out to exist — has been described to me by a physicist friend as more a property of the universe than a “mere” law of nature, it becomes clear, I think why this result is so fascinating. If neutrinos really do go faster than light, then there’s a huge challenge to come up with a theoretical account of what’s going on that allows OPERA’s neutrinos the ability to race whilst Supernova 1987a’s crew dawdled along at mere light speed — to name just one issue that would need resolution.
That is: facts on their own are orphans. They require a conscious act of decision on the part of their interrogator to gain meaning. In an essay published the same year Einstein proposed special relativity, the great mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare asked “who shall choose the facts which…are worthy of freedom of the city in science.” For Poincare, the answer was obvious: that choice “is the free activity of the scientist” — which is to say that it falls to a theorist to think through how one fact, placed next to another, fits into a coherent framework that can survive the test of yet more facts, those already known and those to be discovered.
All of which is to say that even before the Italian observations stand or fall on attempts to replicate the finding, theoretical analyses — thinking hard — can go a some distance in determining whether superluminal neutrinos prove “worthy” of a place in science’s city.
And that’s the long way round to commend a really excellent piece by Matt Strassler, an old friend whose day job as a theoretical particle physicist at Rutgers informs his recently acquired mantle as a physics blogger. Check him out — not just this post — because, IMHO, he’s very rapidly proving himself to be in the first rank of popular translators of some really deep stuff.
In the linked piece, Matt writes about an argument put forward by Andrew Cohen and Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow, both theoreticians at Boston University. To gloss Matt’s explication: Cohen and Glashow have developed some earlier thinking that originally focused on the phenomenon called Cerenkov radiation. Matt discusses Cerenkov radiation here — basically it’s electromagnetic radiation emitted by energetic particles going faster than the speed of light in a medium (water, or air, for example, rather than a vacuum) — which, as Matt explains, does not violate special relativity.
Neutrinos do emit such radiation, very weakly, but that’s not the key to the argument; the effect is too small to matter for the OPERA result. Rather, Cohen and Glashow point out that superluminal neutrinos should have produced a different kind of emission that is roughly analogous to the Cerenkov effect — and that each time one of OPERA’s neutrinos did so, it would have lost a lot of energy — enough to register on OPERA instruments. Which means, as Matt puts it, that
… the claim of Cohen and Glashow is that OPERA is inconsistent with itself — that it could not have seen a speed excess without an energy distortion, the latter being easier to measure than the former, but not observed. The upshot, then, is that OPERA’s finding that its neutrinos arrived earlier than expected cannot be due to their traveling faster than the speed of light in vacuum. Something is probably wrong with OPERA’s expectation, not the neutrinos.
Now this is a theoretical argument and it could be wrong in a variety of ways. In the comment thread to Matt’s post, the very clever physicist Lee Smolin points to one possible physical case in which Cohen and Glashow’s proposition would not hold. Theory, interpretation, decides what facts are worthy of being known — but theories are subject to revision, of course, and never more so on those occasions when one fact or another stubbornly refuses to submit to judgment.
But what I find so pleasing about this whole sequence of thought is the way it illustrates what actually happens in science, as opposed to the parody of scientific process you see in a lot of public accounts — especially when politically contentious research is involved.
The OPERA team made the best measurement they could; when it refused to succumb to their search for some alternative explanation, they published the result, no doubt reasonably certain that it would be subject to relentless examination — under which there was (and remains) a very good chance this work will be shown to be wrong. Cohen and Glashow have now offered a formal structure that suggests that what we know of the way the universe actually works presents a major logical challenge to the validity of the OPERA claim of discovery. The ultimate resolution will turn both on continuing experimental work and on the kind of effort Glashow and Cohen offer: the hard work of figuring out what it would mean if the result were true — or perhaps better: what understanding do we possess now that suggests the OPERA result is either real or an error.
Contrast that process with the critique of climate science that comes from the Right, as I discussed briefly in my post on Eric Stieg’s rather blistering reviewof the recent announcement of a study affirming (yet again) mainstream climate research. Stieg wrote, in effect, that the attacks on climate science turn on a refusal to engage one blunt fact: there is an underlying physical understanding of the basic theory of the system under study: climate change driven by changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That theoretical framework determines the course of empirical research, the search for facts worthy of being known:
…the reason for concern about increasing CO2 comes from the basic physics and chemistry, which was elucidated long before the warming trend was actually observable…The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. [Italics in the original.] The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.
Which is another way of saying that most of the noise from those who both deny the reality of climate change and would impugn the honor of climate researchers misses the point. Not because there isn’t reason to test the reliability of any measurement — of a fast neutrino or a tree ring sequence, either one — but because the issue in either case is understanding what we do know, and then engaging the challenge of a new result in that context.
Hence the (perhaps meta-) value of the faster-than-light neutrino story. This experiment will have to overcome the hurdles thrown up by special relativity’s ubiquitous influence, by the physics of high energy phenomena and so on. That’s how the process of discovery moves from tantalizing initial impressions to settled knowledge. Understanding that process illuminates the hurdles facing climate science denialists: to advance their case, they must reconcile their criticisms of mainstream climate research with the exceptionally well understood basic physics of radiative transfer and the thermal properties of different gases — as well as streams of evidence flowing from direct observations and from the ongoing inquiry into the correlation between evolving climate models and what we can see of the climate itself.
By contrast: cherry-picking dishonestly-excerpted emails is not science.
Oh — and as long as we’ve come this far, let me add a note about another challenge to the faster-than-light neutrino claim that’s come up over the time I’ve been working on this post.
In one of dozens, at least, of efforts to pry apart the actual workings of the OPERA experiment, University of Groningen Ronald van Elburg, has offered his candidate for the (by-many) expected systematic error that could have tricked the OPERA researchers into believing they had observed an effect that is not there.
Elburg has zeroed in on one of the obviously critical elements of the measurement, the calibration of the clocks that timed the neutrinos on their journey. To make that observation, the team relied on the atomic clocks used to synchronize the signals from Global Positioning Satellites — GPS. The tricky part is that the satellites that house the clocks are in motion — pretty fast too — relative to the labs on the ground and the neutrinos traveling between the source and the detector.
When one object is in motion, travelling in a different reference frame than that of some measuring apparatus, then special relativity comes into play. As the TechReview’s Physics ArXiv blog describes the issue, this means
[that] from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.
The correction needed to account for this relativistic shrinking of the path as seen from the point of view of the measuring device in space is almost exactly the same size as the seeming excess speed of the neutrinos the OPERA team believes they’ve detected. And that would mean that…
far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.
It’s not as open and shut as all that. Elburg’s argument makes the assumption that the OPERA team failed to account for the quite well-known special relativistic effects on GPS signals — and while they may have, we don’t know that yet. At the same time the original OPERA paper reports some checks on the timekeeping essential to the experiment. I understand that the group is working through the long list of necessary responses to specific suggestions like this one — while at the same time preparing for a yet higher precision measurement of the effect they think they have seen.
But the broader point remains: experimental physics is (and has always been) very, very hard to do, involving an effort to push the limits of precision beyond any current standard. Because the effects sought are at the limits of our capacity to detect them (necessarily; if it were easy, we’d have seen whatever it was already) there is an enormous amount of subtle knowledge that goes into constructing the framework of each experiment. The machines don’t just have to work; you have to understand in detail how quantum mechanics and relativity and all the increasingly subtle applications of the broad ideas play out at the speeds and energies and distances involved. Understanding what’s actually happening at the subtle edges of experiments — even seemingly simply ones — turns out to be very difficult to do.
How difficult? So much so that Albert Einstein himself made an error that is quite similar in some ways to the mistake Elburg suggests could have happend here. In 1930, in one his famous arguments with Niels Bohr, Einstein devised a thought experiment to show that it would be possible to measure a quantity to a finer level of accuracy than Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle permits. Einstein’s argument seemed airtight, and according to an observer at the scene,
It was a real shock for Bohr…who, at first, could not think of a solution. For the entire evening he was extremely agitated, and he continued passing from one scientist to another, seeking to persuade them that it could not be the case, that it would have been the end of physics if Einstein were right; but he couldn’t come up with any way to resolve the paradox. I will never forget the image of the two antagonists as they left the club: Einstein, with his tall and commanding figure, who walked tranquilly, with a mildly ironic smile, and Bohr who trotted along beside him, full of excitement…The morning after saw the triumph of Bohr.
It turned out that Einstein had left one crucial physical idea out of his analysis; he did not account for the effects of his own discovery, the general theory of relativity, on the behavior of the experimental procedure. Once gravity was factored into the argument, the violation of quantum indeterminancy vanished.
That is simply to say that the neutrino experimentalists may well have made what seems from the sidelines like an obvious mistake. But if Albert Einstein could fall prey to a similar kind of error, that should tell us all we need to know about how hard it is for any one person, or even one group, to think through the full subtlety of experience. Which is why science works the way it does, by continuous criticism and self-criticism. As the neutrino story plays out, we’re watching how science ought to work.
Which, and finally we complete the long road home, is why science honestly done and described is vastly different as both a practical and a moral matter than the masked-as-science attacks on this mode of discovery that now dominate the thinking of one of the two major American political parties.
(Back to 2020: the thread. Open it is.)
Images: Light painting in an abandoned railway tunnel, 4 September 2011.
William Blake, When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1820.
Jan Vermeer, The Astronomer, c. 1668
[placeholder for a smart and witty comment about neutrinos to be developed later]
A lot of science here–too much for my 40 year ago chemistry major brain! I can only relate things to Nick Cave songs now, in this case, the Higgs Boson Blues. To wit: https://wastepaper.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/higgs-boson-blues/
tl;dr Physics works.
No one wrote about McArgle, like you did though. Those were the days. Now on to read the rest of the post.
I prefer oldtrinos.
@craigie: As your comment travels through space and through the Earth, it will oscillate into another, wittier, form.
@dmsilev: Extremely well played.
You may have some home field advantage here.
Wow, this makes my brain hurt right now. I got my flu shot today so I’m not feeling all that great.
I used to work at Tektronix in Oregon, who made the most advanced oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers in the world (although Hewlett-Packard was a very close competitor). The trick with using these instruments at the limits of their capabilities was you had to understand exactly how they worked, and what set their limitations (mostly physics and materials science).
If you didn’t fully understand these gizmos, what you’d be observing would be artifacts, not anything real. This applies with greater force in a lab filled with custom, one-of-a-kind instruments and test gear. A lot of the custom gear would be poorly documented and not completely understood by the scientists themselves, who are not full-time electronics engineers, but researchers, which is a different skill set. So verifying a questionable measurement would take a long time, and many different sets of eyes to really understand the result and where it came from.
This just popped up. An appreciation of the brilliant. troubled Dorothy Parker.
Hope the link works OK. Definitely worth reading.
Wonderfully well stated. I was thinking along these lines as I watched some YouTube videos related to Trump’s voter fraud sideshow. My contention is that you cannot use science to prove a lie. If done right, bullshit falls apart.
So, you had some statisticians and actual scholars trying to use statistics, forensic accounting and other techniques to “prove” that votes had been stolen from Trump, shifted to Biden and other fantasies. In every case, better statisticians and scholars pointed out that these people were wrong. Some did not know what they were doing. Some made simple errors. Some did not go far enough to test their theories. One guy claimed that a graph of Trump votes in a certain precinct showed that votes had been stolen. Problem is, a graph of Biden votes in the district showed exactly the same pattern, which should have been impossible if votes had been shifted to him.
It was sad to see how easily even people who supposedly were knowledgeable in their fields misused their talents, either deliberately or in error, to try to establish a nonsense proposition. It would be like trying to “prove” that the world is flat.
On the other hand, it was heartening to see how easily these false arguments could be demolished, for those willing to be ruled by something other than blind adherence to political ideology.
Of course, students who might run across these people might note their names and avoid them like the plague.
ETA: Love the William Blake illustration.
Snarki, child of Loki
IF there was a particle that violated relativity, it would be neutrinos. Probably CPT as well, just for the fun of it.
It seems to me, at times, that “conservatives” are uncomfortable with change. They want things to be static. Climate change and scientific pursuit throw them off. It is part of the reason they get macroeconomics wrong. They believe money is a fixed thing, not an exchange.
BTW My father and two uncles were scientists. I got a very early dose of the scientific method. I can’t understand why the process is so disturbing to so many.
@Brachiator: The world is not flat. If it were cats would have pushed everything off.
OT but TL knows art. Cleveland Art Museum had a visiting Rembrandt exhibit 40 years ago. I was getting an accounting degree at the time. One of the paintings, not much noted in the catalog, was a still life of a Dutch burgher’s wall. All sorts of receipts and invoices in clumps on a wall held up with tacks and nails etc.
Fund accounting! By Rembrandt! I have always wanted a copy of that painting. Ring any bells with anyone?
Great post, Tom. Thanks. Your explanation of the relationship between facts and theory reminds me of one of my favorite popular science books, Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, by Philip Kitcher. Kitcher makes the point that it’s not enough to show that one individual finding is wrong, because there might be many implications that would then need to be explained in another way. And that experiments can turn out to be wrong—otherwise, my freshman physics notebook would be evidence that Newton was wrong.
On a separate note, then, I’ll mention that when I argue with climate science deniers, anti-maskers (a friend calls them antima), etc., some of them will point to the scientific literature, picking out an opinion that’s in a tiny minority. They think that’s a slam dunk, but the question then becomes, “How do you, a non-expert, choose between a scientific consensus and a more speculative view?” I’ll argue that the rational thing to do, lacking expertise, is to go with most of the experts.
I should admit that I’ve never convinced anyone with this argument, but it may not be the quality of the argument that’s at fault.
@Tom Levenson: I really should have said “wittier flavor” rather than form, but oh well.
Translation: Neutrinos have a rather odd feature which is that they “oscillate”, where any given neutrino moves back and forth between different “flavors” or types. For a long time, we thought that there was something seriously wrong with our understanding of how the Sun worked because theory predicted that we should be seeing a whole bunch of “electron neutrinos” coming from the Sun and the actual observations only picked up a fraction of those. Turns out, the answer was that the neutrinos were being emitted, but because of this oscillation effect some of them reached the detector as “muon neutrinos” which are harder to detect. If you want me to explain in more depth, I can but it will quickly involve words that start with “eigen” and annoying math and so forth…
Reminder Sunday( ? date) BJ is doing Levenson’s book. I bought it when it came out, read intro but didn’t start it seriously until yesterday. It’s fascinating. No tunnel vision there (bunch of polymaths, only some are sociopaths.)
Some conservatives have a belief in Truth as one, unchanging thing. They sometimes twist science into trying to justify their beliefs.
For example, I read some conservatives who try to justify racism or sexism by referring to human nature, even evoking Darwin and the idea that some traits have been “baked into us” over hundreds of thousands of years. And yet, paradoxically, I come across evolution deniers who bark, “if evolution is true, why do scientists keep changing their theories when new fossils are found?”
This is tiresome. But once, fortunately, someone asked me what I would do if I found out that evolution was somehow actually refuted by the facts. I say “fortunately,” because it is not often that one gets a neat opportunity to respond, and rarely do you have a good reply.
But I just said, “If I woke up and read the news that everything I knew was wrong, I would simply ask, ‘OK, what do we now know is true?’ ”
I still remember that when I was a kid, our school science textbooks noted, with certainty, that our solar system was the only one with planets. Don’t even think about looking for planets elsewhere.
And years later, at college, the professor of an anthropology course I was taking, was struggling to understand the significance of fossils of early humanoids that had been discovered, and admitted that these finds refuted some of his own work. But he was excited to learn what new directions might be opened up by these discoveries. It was exciting to see science as something vital and contemporary, something other than conventional wisdom distilled and handed out in small doses to students who were expected to just quietly nod and accept.
But I also learned that some people need some idea of solid unchanging faith or belief to give their life meaning.
Thanks Tom I always enjoy these ventures into science.
David ??Merry Christmas?? Koch
We’re back to mustard on cheeseburger gate and tan suit gate.
Denialists start with the conclusion they want, then search widely for supporting arguments no matter how weak, unrelated, or misunderstood.
Not quite. They don’t just want things to be static — they want things static in a way that privileges them. This is why they’re consumed with fear and loathing for Socialism, which they define in a way so that it doesn’t include SS, Medicare, farm aid, and other socialized programs that benefit them but not others outside their demographic group.
@Baud: Yep. Nature works as explained by quantum mechanics. It only sounds weird when you try to explain it in words. The correct language to explain physics is mathematics, not English.
Mike S (Now with a Democratic Congressperson!)
@Brachiator: Links for those who want to look at the data. See these explained by Matt Parker of the “Stand up Maths” youtube Channel
Do these scatter plots reveal fraudulent vote-switching in Michigan?
Why Benford’s law doesn’t apply to this data
I tried…..really tried….to read this whole post (the physics dont spook me), but it’s….just….too….long. This needs to be perhaps several posts, maybe one a day. It’s so long that the neutrinos are now oldtrinoes…
I had to take a break before starting my reply…so much to digest.
I went back to grad school in the mid 80s and was taking an advanced astronomy class when SN 1987A was discovered and neutrinos detected. My astronomy prof, a usually unflappable climber of very tall mountains by avocation, was extremely animated by this news.
He described the actual measurements and observations and the elusiveness of neutrinos. He described the current state of neutrino detectors and how they worked and related the neutrino observations to the optical observations visible only to those in the Southern Hemisphere. He stressed the importance of this first ever window of science opening up and discussed potential implications. I felt very lucky to be someone paying attention to these things as they played out.
I also remember splashy articles about the superluminal neutrino discovery. At the time, I took it as a teaching moment. I lead my students to consider how likely the measurements were to be wrong in some way and what nasty consequences would come about if they were right. Good times, good times.
Cut to 2015 and I am in front of a class of astronomy students, bouncing up and down (me, not the students). I detailed the first confirmation of the detection of gravitational waves. Rumors had been simmering that the announcement was coming but still, the confirmation press conference (which I aired live in class) was a jubilant event to me. I tried to get them to fathom the techniques of making these measurements, the level of precision necessary to do so and the future importance of the discovery. I again felt very lucky to be living at the time of such a magnificent achievement.
Early in my teaching career, I started asking every single class the same thing on the first day of school: what is science? I would go over their answers with them and finish by discussing with them my point of view that science is an activity, a verb, a process. “Things” are not science, “observations” are not science, “facts” are not science. Your neutrino post illustrates how real science plays out, often messy and confusing and subject to human foibles. This is why I have always loved science.
Oh yeah, and what a delicious helping of lagniappe you dish out…a reference to Lee Smolin, one of my favs; reminiscences of Megan bashing; fossils links to Tbogg and others at your old blog. Thank you for making my evening.
Q: Why aren’t neutrinos successful at football?
A: They’re only good at forward passing.
Thanks, Tom. The physics is interesting to the extent that I get it, and the point you make about scientific process important. And as always, the art is engaging.
Ella in New Mexico
Some people love turtles.
I love turtles AND science. :-)
@schrodingers_cat: Have you read “Somethimg for Nothing” yet?
I actually understand what Levenson is saying, or at least I think I do. I attribute this to my YouTube viewing preferences, which include a lot of science presenters like Dr Becky Smethurst, Sabine Hossenfelder, Fermilab’s Dr Don Lincoln, and the team at the University of Nottingham’s various science and maths channels. I are wannabe egghead.
Le Comte de Monte Cristo, fka Edmund Dantes
Speaking on behalf of myself, on reading this piece it occurs to me that paste comes with a useful eating utensil, and I never actually gave it the chance it deserved. It may have been delicious, and my disdain for people who ate it was undeserved, since I just now realized I really am no better than them.
Among scientists, and academic pooh-bahs in general, departure from honest criticism and self-criticism sometimes happens mainly because of ego (‘I can never be wrong because I am so great’) or a desperate longing for a world view that a new theory or experimental results seems to refute (say, Einstein and quantum theory?)
For politically charged issues, I think it happens mainly because of a desperate longing for a world view that gradually turns into a desperate insane mania, or money.
I looked up some papers that a covid denier claimed refuted would-be sadist totalitarians like Fauci, and none of them in fact did. My favorite was a paper than was claimed to have proven that there was no asymptomatic transmission of covid.
I did find the phrase ‘no asymptomatic transmission of covid’ but immediately followed by explanation that was because there were only about a dozen infected people in a sample of thousands, and their viral load was so low that they were not infectious.
So, what can explain that? A mind descended into madness, or shameless greed, or both.
Oh, and since the piece Tom reposted was from immediately after OPERA announced their strange findings, it should be mentioned how the story ended: after a huge amount of investigation and troubleshooting, they discovered that a fiber optic cable which carried a clock signal had, roughly speaking, not been properly plugged in, which caused some spurious errors in their timing measurements, making it seem as if the neutrinos were moving faster than light.
Tom writes this:
to which I would add that understanding the engineering of your apparatus can be every bit as important as understanding the physics. The OPERA story is one example of that. LIGO (gravitational waves) is another, where mundane effects like, say, seismic vibrations, need to be understood and dealt with if there’s to be any hope of your instrument working. Or quantum computing, where you’re dealing with very abstruse and abstract quantum concepts, but getting them to work means dealing with the nitty gritty of microwave sources, lithography, and the art of making materials with just the right set of impurities to do what you want.
@sab: No, what is that.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
This is pretty widespread, imo. An aunt of mine, who wasn’t particularly right-wing, made a comment to the effect of how “scientists can’t ever make up their minds. First it was one thing, now it’s this.” I believe this was in reference to those studies that get reported on in the popular press about what’s healthy or not for you. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s not just a single study that makes something true or not true; it’s a sustained collaborative effort where the results of numerous, rigorous scientific studies broadly point to a conclusion or set of conclusions. And sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t mean science is worthless
There was also this Genesis song, Living Forever, I came across that I like but despise for the message at the same time:
It smacks of misplaced anti-elitism, ignorance, and anti-scientific attitudes. It seriously made me like Phil Collins and Genesis less
I had a similar experience with a freshman geology course. The Prof said he was slow to accept plate tectonics but the evidence became overwhelming and the avenues for further research are exciting. Really interesting lectures where he’d explain his initial reluctance to accept a particular line of evidence then how he came around. We didn’t have a text book until winter term. He been teaching without a text for a couple years because the old texts were wrong and it took a while before anyone wrote an acceptable plate tectonics text.
@ColoradoGuy: as someone who used Tektronix oscilloscopes for most of my career, thank you! Very good comment on the need to understand how the test equipment works, so that you know if the results you’re reading are correct or not.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): what Genesis song is that? I’ve been known to tickle the eardrums with the dulcimer tones of Mr. Phillip Collins a time or two, but I dont recognize those lyrics….
I am lucky.
was good at math,
had a horrible algebra teacher,
even worse 1st Year Physics teacher.
Nina Fischer saved me, not only by teaching me physics in my second year, but fixing Algebra for me.
Not enough to convert me, but enough to graduate with good enough grades to continue my education.
But “Big Science” is hard and often uninteresting to me, because past the basics, Algebra and Physics are hard for me.
This made me think of farming. And forestry. And then coal mining.
this post brings to mind the first lecture we had in medical school back in 1985. Our British biochemistry professor opened the lecture thus:
“Class, half of everything that you will be taught in the next four years is wrong. We don’t know which half it is, so keep an open mind as new information comes to light.”
Not a Rembrandt, but you might like Holbein’s portrait of Georg Giese.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
It’s called, “Living Forever”, from the “We Can’t Dance” album from 1991. Here’s a recording on YT
I didn’t quote all of the lyrics, but that’s most of it. It’s a good song from an instrumental/music standpoint. And I think the phrase, “always one more tomorrow” is very profound. Pretty neatly sums up how most people view their own mortality. Nobody wants to think about it and for much of our lives I think we live in a state of partial-denial about our own future deaths. It’s our curse, in my opinion, to know we are going to someday die. But I don’t like the imo anti-science message that goes along with it
Speaking of the “We Can’t Dance” album, I absolutely love No Son of Mine
It’s powerful and is about abuse, parental rejection.
Also too, music.
“Got enough patch cords there, bub?”
@ColoradoGuy: Yours was an appropriate response — Wikipedia says: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faster-than-light_neutrino_anomaly#Measurement_errors
that one of the possible problems was a fiber-optic cable wasn’t screwed in tightly enough, causing a delay in the timing.
Not that it muddles any scientific theory or anything, but the link
Images: Light painting in an abandoned railway tunnel,
goes back to David Anderson’s post.
When my friends and I remanence about wacky troubleshooting problems we encountered, there are a lot of these stories. Glad it’s not just us! I will say that one non-funny story that I used to tell my students about the importance of paying attention to what they were doing (reading/following technical order instructions) was the death of an F-15 pilot due to his control cables being installed backwards. I’m glad this cable issue wasn’t as serious.
Two Maintenance NCOs Face Courts-Martial in F-15 Crash
No! No! Anything but The Eigen Function…
Brief story: Graduate class in multivariate statistics, University of Maryland – Baltimore County, ca. 1974. We got strange answers from a BMDP program & checked it against other software. It turned out the eigenvalues displayed errors of ~6%. The BMDP developers at UCLA asked for full documentation; we sent it. Long, loud silence from the Left Coast – though one could almost hear the gnashing of teeth, rending of pocket protectors, weeping & wailing & coffee-soaked late nights trying to suss out whatever incredibly subtle error lurking in the mass of FORTRAN code was causing an error too small to be an easily-found egregious mistake and too large to be ignored…
I recall hearing years ago (I no longer recall where) about some creationists who, out of curiosity about the enemy, went to an evolutionary-biology conference. They were expecting to hear the scientists there spending their time nervously affirming the truth of evolution, and talking about ways to attack creationism–the mirror image of what you’d hear at a creationist conference. Instead they were a bit confused to discover that the people there weren’t particularly concerned with the battle of evolution vs. creationism at all, but were discussing and debating more specific issues. To people within a scientific community, pseudoscientists attacking the field as a whole over some archaic objection just seem like an unwanted distraction–people who don’t understand how any of it works.
Science is great because it can be disproven. Religion can’t even be tested.
Re: Living Forever – Seems to me to be more about junk science like fad diets, and possibly shallow media reporting on science. I don’t think they’re criticizing real science.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka): That’s where the Popperian emphasis on “falsification” can steer people wrong: they imagine that one contrary result can sink an accepted theory or a whole field of science. Things are not that fragile. Someone’s falsification could just be a statistical outlier or a methodological error–there has to be a lot of replication and corroboration before many people will believe otherwise. And that’s not a pathological conservatism, it’s necessary for the process to not break instantly.
@David ??Merry Christmas?? Koch: Andrea is just reverting to type…I imagine she was VERY uncomfortable having to criticize the Repubs in ANY way over the last 4 years lol
(Many many years ago, during my excessively long time as a graduate student, I worked as a TA for both Sheldon Glashow and Matt Strassler, at different times. Smart guys. I remember Glashow specifically talking about physics cranks, and how the thing most of them specifically get wrong is that they can’t come up with theories that converge to the results of the well-tested ones over their domain of application.)
One of my favorite Randall Munroe pieces on this very sort of topic:
Re: the link, it’s like supernovae and neutrinos are kind of like “what happens if you multiply infinity by 0?” except, of course, the concept doesn’t make sense. There is no “infinity” – it’s just a concept essentially saying “for any number n, there’s an n+1, and for that matter, a 10n, a 1,000,000*n, a 10^n, a 10^n^10^n^10^100, etc.. So you can’t multiply it by 0 any more than you can multiply a physical ham sandwich, with no axiomatic rules, by 0. (You can, however, map it to 0 ham sandwiches, by eating it, but that’s a transformation – in case you needed to be told that! :-) )
(There are times in math when we discuss what happens to 0*infinity, but that’s as a result of functions, or series, where one tends to 0 and the other grows without bound. It’s a *limit* – and limits don’t actually tell us what *is*, just what we could reasonably expect.)
It also includes what should be an important safety tip: don’t look directly into a supernova from any reasonable, human-sensible distance, *OR* the detonation of a hydrogen bomb at short range. Both are bad, but the former is more like “crossing the streams”.
@dmsilev: Sometimes late at night in the beforetimes, when there were like four channels on television, I would run across Dr. Julius Sumner Miller, who was an old scientist guy doing demonstrations to be taped and shown in schools. When things would go awry, as they sometimes did, he would say “We must not say that the experiment has failed! but rather, that WE have failed to meet the requirements of the experiment!”. He was great. I woulda watched him in prime time.
I love the idea of an instructor having to teach without reference to the standard texts because the old science had been rendered null and void.
It’s frustrating that even for people who aren’t anti-science, the general concept of science in our culture is “scientists are really smart people, so they know what’s right,” and that’s easy for science deniers to exploit. One of the most important things about the scientific method is that it gives us tools to overcome the fact that the human brain isn’t supremely rational. Scientists do need to be well-trained to use those tools, but it’s the process that produces results, not that that those trained in it automatically think scientifically.
@Matt McIrvin: That’s really not surprising. Creationists, and “Intelligent Design” idiots don’t understand science.
Science doesn’t give a damn about some capital-t Truth. It cares about models.
Science doesn’t care if random mutation, and the largest analog brute force computer in existence (which is to say: existence itself) created life as we know it. Science cares that the model of evolution fits better than any other model, and makes useful predictions. Creationism could be discussed in “comparative theology”; Intelligent Design could be brought up in sex ed – no, wait, that’s the wrong *type* of wanking, so I guess Intelligent Design doesn’t belong in education at all. Neither of them have any meaning with respect to science.
Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Pretty much. Religion, well, radical religion anyway, assumes that everything there is to know is already known via religious texts
That’s reasonable, but I still don’t like the vagueness of the “they” the lyrics call out
I think most lay people just don’t think very hard about it. Which is fine! They don’t have to, it’s not their jobs to. But it’s also important to foster a respect for expertise and science in general. The US used to have this during most of the 20th century. Hell, the 18th/19th century too, at least among the people who ran the country. It really seems like the 1960s fucked us up; our faith in our government, however naïve and perhaps sometimes misplaced, was shattered by that decade’s events
Seeing Glashow’s name reminded me of Neutrino Geotomography, and in particular of the seminal paper ‘Neutrino exploration of the earth’… a truly wonderful 1983 paper by De Rújula, Glashow, Wilson & Charpak.
“We show how the neutrinos produced by a multi-TeV proton synchotron may be used for purposes of geological research. Project GENIUS (geological exploration by neutrino-induced underground sound) is designed to search for deposits of oil and gas at large distances from the accelerator. It depends upon the coherent sound signal produced at depth by millions of neutrino interactions along the underground neutrino beam. Surface measurements of the acoustic pulse provide a remote underground probe. Project GEMINI (geological exploration with muons induced by neutrino interactions) is designed to search for distant deposits of high- Z ores. It depends upon the surface measurement of neutrino-induced muons which were produced in the last few kilometers of the neutrinos’ underground voyage. Project GEOSCAN is a flux-independent procedure to determine the vertical density profile of the Earth, and especially its core. It depends upon the angle and energy dependence of the attenuation as the neutrino beam traverses the whole Earth.”
That would be a great debate question to a flat earth society member.
I had to click on the link to get the reference to “patch cords” in relation to music. Because of the music slant, I was immediately trying to figure out what “patch chords” are. Actually, now I’m still wondering.
@Goku (aka Amerikan Baka)
Sigh. Shall turn the microphone over to Jack Pearl for the catchphrase.
That’s about all am willing to say in public in response.
@NotMax: These 87 tons – did they only suck up 10% of all life, or more given the volume?
The spaghetti of cords in the video, basically, which are not hard wired. When one or multiple devices or control boards have multiple choices of outlet sockets and inlet sockets, patch cords are used to connect between outlet and inlet as needed.
For example, connect Device 1 outlet B to Device 3 inlet F, usually but not always temporarily to achieve a specific conductive pathway as demand or circumstances require.
Another example. Strained excuse for a movie (but oh, the shower scene).
…not that that those trained in it automatically think scientifically.
Good thought. I felt like I had a minor epiphany after I decided that I wanted to learn about how and why electricity works to help me safely tinker with electronics. After some research, I finally realized that we don’t actually know much more than “Here’s what we have discovered so far”. So it was back to learning to use tools safely and maybe in a useful way.
@Tom Levenson – thanks! Such a breath of fresh air to read something with so much care taken for clarity of thought and communication! I’ll have to read the other comments later, but it reminds me of when I used to read a couple of Buddhist magazines (Tricycle comes to mind), compared to most of what you could read, the best articles had thoughts laid out with great care – very meticulous and honest.
She means Money for Nothing, Levenson’s book.
We know a lot. But in the end, that’s what every scientific theory or “law of nature” is. The why only goes so far.