Monday, September 26, 2011

Universal constants, universal consensus

I received a book in the mail last week, as I sometimes do, for potential review on this blog, James Stein's Cosmic Numbers: The Numbers That Define Our Universe.. I often write here about books I read, but I don't review. I did glance at Stein's book, however. It has an audience, but it's not for me; been there, done that.

The subtitle is provocative, however. The idea that a dozen or so numbers "define the universe." That's a mind-blowing concept.

The gravitational constant. The speed of light. Absolute zero. Planck's constant. The Hubble constant. And so on. Familiar to every introductory physics student. Built into the very structure of the Earth. And every other earth in the universe.

Look again at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field photograph. Those myriad of galaxies. Those yawning light-years. That infinitude of worlds. And, as far as we know, the fundamental constants are the same everywhere,

The human mind has thrown a net across the cosmos.

And as we have brought the galaxies into our ken, so have we come to realize that we too are part and parcel of the fabric of cosmic space and time.

Exceptional clarity. Impenetrable mystery.

So what do we make of the news so breathlessly reported in the media of neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light? This is surely a bit of heroic physics, pitting what we believe to be true against the refining fire of experience, but I wouldn't make too much of it yet. Tom suggested that perhaps the researchers unwittingly measured the distance from CERN in Switzerland to Gran Sasso in Italy with greater accuracy. That's the kind of whimsy the result calls for now. The real story -- for the time being -- is as an illustration of the way the engine of scientific knowing grinds inexorably toward consensus.