Friday, September 23, 2011

Extraordinary Claims

The OPERA neutrino experiment from the underground San Grasso Laboratory has recently published a paper regarding the development and testing of a more accurate mechanism to detect the velocity of neutrinos.

If you heard about this, then you probably didn't hear it described in the above terms. You probably heard something to the effect of:

FASTER THAN LIGHT TRAVEL PROVEN BY DIRTY EUROPEANS!!!

OK, probably not the 'dirty Europeans' part. We love you Europe. You think we are nuts for believing in God and executing our citizens...we agree.

So, what's going on with this extraordinary claim? Well, scientists from the San Grasso Laboratory and CERN got some wacky results from the experiment they were running that, if accurate, represent a fundamental problem in our understanding of all matter, and all energy. To give the appropriate weight to this discovery: It makes E = MC^2 not true.

Over a distance of 730 Km (453.6 M,) Neutrino particles travelled, and arrived at a detector a whole 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have if they were travelling at the speed of light. That's 0.00000006 seconds.

This is not a large amount of time, as you can imagine. The OPERA team, however, calculated the possible error in their detection method to be 6.9 nanoseconds, a whole order of magnitude smaller.

They checked, double checked, triple checked, quadruple checked all of the data. They tested their equipment, and then retested it. They did every possible thing that they could think of to explain these anomalous results in a way that doesn't violate our fundamental understanding of physics.

And when they couldn't, they published a paper. They published a humble, and fact driven paper describing the experiment, the data collection, and the analysis. They opened their books to the physics community and the world at large, and said one very important thing: We don't think we are right. We don't think we are right, and we can't find where we went wrong. Somebody please look at this and tell us where we went wrong.

To quote the last paragraph of the conclusion section of that paper:
     Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the
     analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in
     order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed
     anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of
     the results.


And so it remains to be seen what will come of these results. The OPERA team released findings that would result in an extraordinary claim, a claim that would represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of physics. The OPERA team are skeptical of their own results, as they should be.

In debates about the existence of God, a concept is frequently brought up by those arguing atheism. That concept is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. As far as extraordinary claims go, anything of the 'supernatural' variety would certainly fit the bill. The invisible man in the sky who created the earth in seven days 6,000 years ago? Well, that is quite extraordinary indeed. That is, if it were proven true, it would represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe. A shift far greater than being 60 nanoseconds off on the speed of light.

When we ask for the extraordinary evidence to back up your extraordinary claim, what we are asking for is this. We are asking you to set aside your beliefs for just one moment, and allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. We ask for you to prove your case. We ask for you to address the statements of others, and to justify how your beliefs are accurate in light of the arguments presented to you. We ask for you to be honest.

We only ask for you to admit that you might be wrong.

-Paul Wittmeyer

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