Monday, February 27, 2012

Drafty halls

Those faster-than-light neutrinos that made such a big splash last year
may not have been so speedy after all
. Turns out the surprising result might be attributed to a loose wire. So Einstein was apparently right after all. Nothing travels faster than light.

Big surprise (he said facetiously). I don't know of anyone who took the original experiment at face value. Such a revolutionary result requires a high standard of independent confirmation.

But it made good press. Take that, Mr. Einstein!

Which is not to say that I wasn't thrilled with the original reports. Not because the neutrinos made the journey from CERN on the French-Swiss border to the underground lab at Gran Sasso in Italy slightly quicker than expected, but rather that they made the journey at all.

Think about it. The accelerator at CERN shoots a beam of neutrinos under the Alps and the spine of the Apennines, through 700 kilometers of solid rock. The vast majority are unimpeded in their flight. Of those that reach Gran Sasso, only the rare particle is caught and recorded. The rest continue on their way, eventually exiting the Earth somewhere to the south, and on across the universe.

That's the real story. That scientists have discovered the existence of such elusive particles, can shoot beams of them through the Earth, and snag a few in a deep underground chamber.

And while I'm thinking about it, 100 trillion neutrinos from the center of the Sun are passing through my body every second as I write.
Neutrinos, they are very small.

They have no charge and have no mass

And do not interact at all.

The earth is just a silly ball

To them, through which they simply pass,

Like dustmaids through a drafty hall

Or photons through a sheet of glass.

They snub the most exquisite gas,

Ignore the most substantial wall,

Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,

Insult the stallion in his stall,

And scorning barriers of class,

Infiltrate you and me! Like tall

And painless guillotines, they fall

Down through our heads into the grass.

At night, they enter at Nepal

And pierce the lover and his lass

From underneath the bed-you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

Cosmic Gall, by John Updike.