FAITH Magazine November – September 2011
Towards a Paradigm Shift in Modern Physics
1. Does Relativity Need to be Updated?
In September, the unbelievable was reported by another research group working at CERN: the detection of faster-than-light motion. It is a central plank of the current understanding of physics that nothing at all can travel at a speed faster than that of light in a vacuum (namely, 186,000 miles per second). Physicists of the "OPERA" collaboration have been measuring the speed of neutrinos (a fundamental particle of little or no mass) as they travelled 730km through the earth's crust between CERN (in Geneva) and the Gran Sasso laboratory (in central Italy). They found that, after many repeated experiments, the neutrinos were arriving about 60 nano-seconds earlier at the detector than they should have been if travelling at the speed of light. This translates into their computed velocitybeing a factor of 25 millionths faster than the speed of light.
This result is, of course, highly surprising, and the experimenters spent six months checking and rechecking their data prior to publishing their result. Even so, in their conclusions, the authors of the paper are highly cautious, and say: "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." They are asking the scientific community to scrutinise their findings, accepting that there could be some factor that has hitherto escaped their notice why this resultcould for some reason be false. If not false, of course, it would force a radical rethink of the laws of physics. Einstein's "special
theory of relativity," for example, uses the speed of light being a constant, faster than which nothing can travel, as a fundamental axiom, and to date nothing has challenged this idea. If nothing is found wrong with this neutrino-velocity measurement, then of course the modern understanding of physics is thrown entirely "up in the air."
A link to the published paper can be found here: http://arxiv.Org/abs/1109.4897
2. Is There Anything There?
Much of the reason for the huge decade-long upgrade to the CERN particle-accelerator facility in Geneva - creating the "Large Hadron Collider" (LHC) - was the prospect of finding evidence for one of the keystones in the theoretical edifice that is the "Standard Model" of particle physics, the "Higgs boson." Named after the British physicist, Peter Higgs, in the 1960s, it remains a "missing link," as yet undetected in experiments and yet crucial to much of the current theoretical understanding of the fundamental properties of matter on the quantum scale. A boson is a subatomic particle which obeys statistical rules. The Higgs boson is postulated as that which, through its interaction with the "Higgs field", gives mass to particles such as electrons and quarks which are basic to standardphysical theory.
In July, the physicists of the LHC experiments announced that whilst the Higgs boson had not yet been discovered, they were specifying tighter limits upon what its mass could be - which is about 300,000 times less than that of the electron!
CERN's research director, Sergio Bertolucci, gave an upbeat assessment of the LHC's capabilities in the search for the Higgs: he said, "These are exciting times for particle physics. Discoveries are almost assured within the next twelve months. If the Higgs exists, the LHC experiments will soon find it. If it does not, its absence will point the way to new physics."
Also, if it does not exist, Professor Stephen Hawking will have won his infamous and provocative $100 wager, placed in the year 2000, that the Higgs will not be found! Echoing Bertolucci, he is on record as saying, "I think it will be much more exciting if we don't find the Higgs. That will show something is wrong, and we need to think again."
Along with the above neutrino result, the current lack of detection of the Higgs boson are indications that the more physics uncovers about nature, the more there seems to remain surprising and undiscovered. As ever such a paradigm shift would have implications for philosophy of science and metaphysics. But this would be most marked for those philosophers of physics who tend to reduce all to a posited low-level common denominator such as bosons, or atoms or (in Richard Dawkins case) genes. God's creation is truly an amazing place in which man's scientific ventures are always awe-inspiring!