The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘relativity’

50th Anniversary of Doctor Who: The Physics of the TARDIS

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 23, 2013

In honor of the epic 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I am going to re-post a recent post I made this past summer: SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 Day Two – Physics of the TARDIS…

On my second day at  SkepchickCONCONvergence 2013, I participated in two panels.  The second panel was titled “The Physics of the TARDIS” and since the con had a “British Invasion” theme to it, Doctor Who was a big hit this year.  And that meant that this panel was very well attended, so well attended in fact that it ended up being standing (and sitting) room only!  In this panel we got into all manner of questions regarding the physics, realistic and speculative, regarding time travel, the TARDIS being bigger-on-the-inside, and more.

My co-panelists for this discussion were Steve Manfred, Renate Fiora, and Katherine Krantz.  Check out the audio of the panel below, and enjoy!  🙂

[**Note: the audio is embedded in a PowerPoint file – just click the link to download the file]

SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 Day Two – Physics of the TARDIS

conv

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SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 Day Two – Physics of the TARDIS

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 17, 2013

On my second day at  SkepchickCONCONvergence 2013, I participated in two panels.  The second panel was titled “The Physics of the TARDIS” and since the con had a “British Invasion” theme to it, Doctor Who was a big hit this year.  And that meant that this panel was very well attended, so well attended in fact that it ended up being standing (and sitting) room only!  In this panel we got into all manner of questions regarding the physics, realistic and speculative, regarding time travel, the TARDIS being bigger-on-the-inside, and more.

My co-panelists for this discussion were Steve Manfred, Renate Fiora, and Katherine Krantz.  Check out the audio of the panel below, and enjoy!  🙂

SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 Day Two – Physics of the TARDIS

conv

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More Evidence Against Those Supposed “Faster-Than-Light” Neutrinos

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2012

In the ongoing story of the supposedly “faster-than-light” neutrinos discovered last year, there is another big mark against this claim being the real thing: the failure to replicate the phenomenon in an independent experiment.  As I stated then, most especially when dealing with an extraordinary claim such as this, one cannot begin to draw any conclusions until there have been separate, independent attempts to verify and replicate the results.  Until then, we should suspend judgment and remain skeptical of extraordinary claims.

Well, more of that judgment is now in… in a recent BBC News article, it is reported that a team (called Icarus) independent from the original research team (called Opera) from the same facility, Gran Sasso, in Italy failed to find the apparent “faster-than-light” signal which caused such an uproar last September:

Neutrinos clocked at light-speed in new Icarus test

An experiment to repeat a test of the speed of subatomic particles known as neutrinos has found that they do not travel faster than light.

Results announced in September suggested that neutrinos can exceed light speed, but were met with scepticism as that would upend Einstein’s theory of relativity.

A test run by a different group at the same laboratory has now clocked them travelling at precisely light speed.

The results have been posted online.

The results in September, from the Opera group at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy, shocked the world, threatening to upend a century of physics as well as relativity – which holds the speed of light to be the Universe’s absolute speed limit.

Now the Icarus group, based at the same laboratory, has weighed in again, having already cast some doubt on the original Opera claim. …

This is an excellent example of how real science, especially cutting-edge science, progresses.  Claims are not taken at face value; they are always open to criticism and are not necessarily accepted (especially if they go against well-established theories such as Einstein’s relativity) without good, strong, repeatable evidence.

In short, as Carl Sagan stated: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

And the evidence in support of the claims of “faster-than-light” neutrinos seems to be getting less extraordinary every day.

Posted in physics denial/woo, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience: A Humorous Lesson via the “Faster-Than-Light” Neutrinos

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2012

Okay, I was just browsing online a bit, and I came across this funny little gem.  Yeah, I had to share it, because it makes a really good point about the difference between science and pseudoscience/religion…

NewTrinos

by Nadir on March 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

newtrinos

A lifetime ago by internet reckoning and two weeks ago via calendar, news came of the faulty cable/GPS-sync connection as a possible reason for the Faster-Than-Light Neutrino scandal of late 2011. This is not yet completely confirmed but I won’t say I’m not going to be disappointed if this is verified as the cause, though it seems likely. It’s anticlimactic. Not that anyone actually expected FTL travel here, I was at least hoping for a more interesting explanation for the error. The 60 nanosecond fast data is apparently explicable as a result of a bad connection between the GPS receiver and an electronic card in the computer.Yawn.

Now, in fairness, no one involved ever claimed FTL travel, only that they got that result. And they kept trying to disprove it. So what I’m saying is if you got overexcited and invested in fraudulent companies such as ‘the Neutrino-Warp-Drive Enterprise” you only have yourself to blame.*

One thing however, did come out of all this that shined a recent if not really new, light on a fundamental difference between science and religion. Many scientists were sought for comment and every one I saw or read, despite being pretty skeptical and awaiting further data, never completely rejected the idea out of hand. Solid, time tested ideas exist in science, and dagnabbit the universal-speed-limit is one of ‘em; but there are still no sacred cows or prophets. Knocking down or modifying a theory (or just trying to) only serves to strengthen the endeavor for truth, and never weakens it. This is the opposite of how religions operate, and anyone trying to make science and religion comparable, as seen in arguments time and again, has to deal with this massive cleavage.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Faster Than Light” Neutrinos Likely the Result of a Bad Cable Connection

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 23, 2012

**Update (2-25-12):  It seems the situation is a bit more complicated than previously thought, and there is another potential source of error that has been discovered.  More details at this CERN link:  http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2011/PR19.11E.html

*****************************

Last September you may recall quite a bit of buzz going around about the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos.  While the media was going nuts about it, and while various cranks were crowing about “the physics establishment being overturned”, a number of scientists and science bloggers (including me) expressed great interest in this experimental result while also providing a cautious dose of skepticism about the entire affair.  That’s because a theory that is so well-tested as Einstein’s relativity could be overturned or radically adjusted by such a result only if we were absolutely sure of the outcome; and, at the time, not even the scientists who announced the FTL result were very sure of it…

This tended to be the general view among physicists about the apparent “faster-than-light” neutrinos 🙂

Well, it seems our skepticism was well-founded.  From a recent post on the Science Insider blog, it looks as if the “faster-than-light” neutrino signal (which amounted to a discrepancy of 60 nanoseconds or 0.000 000 060 seconds) was probably the result of a bad cable connection…

BREAKING NEWS: Error Undoes Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Results

It appears that the faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame.

Physicists had detected neutrinos travelling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory near L’Aquila that appeared to make the trip in about 60 nanoseconds less than light speed. Many other physicists suspected that the result was due to some kind of error, given that it seems at odds with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That theory has been vindicated by many experiments over the decades.

According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis. [emphasis added]

If true (and my money is on it being true), it wouldn’t surprise me at all. When I was an undergraduate doing research work in a mass spectrometry lab, it took me and my lab mate a couple of days to figure out why the damn thing wasn’t working properly. After almost two days of checking everything (every setting, every seal on the chamber, every line of code), what was the error?

Answer: a bad BNC cable *facepalm*

And I was just working on a lousy table-top sized mass spectrometer.  I can barely imagine the level of complexity in dealing with an experiment of the scale of the CERN-OPERA operation; the fact that they could have missed a lone, loose fiber optic cable doesn’t surprise me at all.

While I’m pretty certain that this error (or similar ones) will explain the situation, I still think it is worthy for some outside research group to attempt a replication of the original, apparent FTL neutrino result.  I say that because it could be worth really nailing down exactly what went wrong in this whole experiment so that other researchers don’t make similar mistakes in the future.  Of course, there is the outside chance (however infinitely remote that may be) that perhaps there is something legitimate to the FTL result.

Either way, science marches on and we learn something about the universe.  Neat, eh? 🙂

Posted in physics denial/woo, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments »

FTL Neutrinos, Skepticism, and Humor

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 25, 2011

Regarding my previous blog post on the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos at CERN, I just wanted to share this humorous bit from the web-comic XKCD which sums it all up quite nicely.  Enjoy! 😀

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Let’s Go Slow on CERN Faster-Than-Light Claims

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 23, 2011

[**Update: If you are looking for the actual research paper on the CERN-OPERA experiment and related “FTL” result, click here.]

[**Update (9-24-11): Here is an interesting critique of the statistical analysis used by the CERN-OPERA team which seems to cast considerable doubt on their FTL claims.]

[**Update (9-25-11): It seems the criticism above was flawed, and the author has retracted his criticism.  See the same link for the retraction.]

Okay, so there is a huge amount of buzz on the Interwebs concerning a potentially paradigm-shifting discovery at the CERN physics laboratory in Europe: faster-than-light (FTL) travel.  However, before we start to engage the warp drive engines and get too terribly excited, let’s – pardon the pun – slow things down a bit and look a bit more deeply at the claims.  The specific claims are outlined at this NPR report:

Scientists at the world’s largest physics lab said Thursday they have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than light. That’s something that according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity — the famous E (equals) mc2 equation — just doesn’t happen.

The particles in question are called neutrinos.  These particles are most often generated in the cores of stars as part of the process of nuclear fusion, though they can be generated in other particle interactions.  Some of the most interesting things about neutrinos is that they are extremely low mass, and they have no charge.  As a result, they don’t really interact with matter and are thus very difficult to detect (though we have methods for doing just that).  The other really interesting thing about neutrinos is that they undergo what is called oscillation – which means that as they travel through space they are able to morph from one kind of neutrino to another.  These three varieties of neutrino are called tau, electron, and muon neutrinos.

This is important to understand given the context of the experiment which has supposedly yielded the FTL result.  Here are the details about the experiment and its results (from the aforementioned NPR article):

CERN says a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab [called OPERA] 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant. But given the enormous implications of the find, they still spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there was no flaws in the experiment.

Now the physics community is understandably skeptical of these results, as it should be.  Einstein’s theory of relativity is a very solid theory, and – as far as I know – there hasn’t every been an experimental result shown which has violated this theory.  And here we have an experimental result which claims that one of relativity’s fundamental postulates – that the speed of light is invariant (i.e. always the same in all frames of reference) – is potentially wrong.  From this point, I see that there are two possibilities:

1. There is some kind of flaw in the design and/or implementation of the CERN-OPERA experiment which the researchers have overlooked.  It is also possible they have some kind of error in their calculations which accounts for the apparent FTL result.

2. There is no experimental/calculation error on the part of the research team, and this result is found to be repeatable by other research groups.

Personally, I am more inclined to #1 at this point, for multiple reasons.  First, as I mentioned above, Einstein’s relativity theory is such a fundamental basis for modern physics, and it has stood up to such rigorous scrutiny over the 20th century and beyond, that it would take much more than this one anomalous experimental result to cause me to seriously question it.  In addition, there are some real, solid reasons to be skeptical of these results, as they do not appear to be consistent with other observations.  Specifically, these results do not seem to be in line with observations we have made of supernova explosions.

Recall that I mentioned above that most neutrinos are generated within stars during nuclear fusion.  Well, when a particularly massive star “dies”, it basically blows up in an explosion we call a supernova.  These explosions are very powerful, and they give off a huge amount of energy in the form of light; but they also give off a huge amount of neutrinos as well.  And, as far as we know, these neutrinos are supposed to travel at the speed of light.  And there’s the rub: what we observed with Supernova 1987A (which was observed by astronomers in 1987 all over the world in real time) is not at all consistent with the findings of the CERN-OPERA group, because if these FTL results are to be believed then the neutrinos blasted out of Supernova 1987A should have been observed somewhere around 3 to 4 YEARS before the light from the explosion.  And that didn’t happen… we observed the light from Supernova 1987A and related neutrino blast at essentially the same time.  These observations of Supernova 1987A are completely at odds with the apparent results of the CERN-OPERA experiments, and until there is a really solid reconciliation of these two sets of data, I am inclined to call the FTL result a fluke.

Supernova 1987A: Image courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory

**Note: For a more detailed analysis of this issue of the Supernova 1987A data, I highly suggest reading this entry at A User’s Guide to the Universe as well as the latest article over at the Bad Astronomy blog.

Now don’t get me wrong… I am not willing to completely shut the door on the CERN-OPERA results just yet.  This could (note the emphasis on “could”) end up being a truly revolutionary moment in the history of physics, but in order to establish that the FTL result is real we need to do a lot of confirmation.  This means checking and rechecking every possible aspect of the experiment and calculations done by the research group, and then attempts to replicate the results of the experiment at other institutions.  I am happy to say that there are already lots of physics research groups (some just down the road from me at FermiLab) who are lining up to try reproducing these FTL results.  It has been stated by some physicists that perhaps there is some previously unknown physical process involved with neutrino oscillation which could explain these anomalous results, so this is also an area which researchers want to look.

And there’s where things could get really interesting, and where I might start to jump up and down as giddy as a school-girl.  If it ends up that these FTL results are the real deal, then I for one would be extremely excited!  Just imagine what that could mean for the future of science… wow.

So, while I am (like much of the physics community) very skeptical of the faster-than-light claims and think that option #1 is most likely, I would be happy to be proven wrong and go with option #2.  But before that happens, we have to go through the really hard, pain-staking, and arduous process called science.  While we might want FTL to be a reality, it still remains to be seen whether or not it is the real thing.  Remember, wanting something doesn’t make it true.

So, for now let’s just stay tuned and see what happens…

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

The Physics of Relativity and a Lesson in Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 5, 2011

I recently had a guest post appear over at the JREF Swift blog, and I wanted to share it with you all here.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Physics of Relativity and a Lesson in Skepticism

I often spend at least a few days or, if I’m lucky, a few weeks addressing the topic of modern physics (that is, post 19th-century physics) in my high school classes towards the end of the year. And the topic I spend the most time on is Einstein’s theory of relativity, something which never fails in gaining the interest of my students, despite the fact that summer vacation is just around the corner. It’s one thing to talk about Newton’s laws, force diagrams, and vectors, but once you get to that “good stuff” like light speed, time travel, and whatnot the students perk right up. That’s precisely why I teach the topic at the end of the year when it is most difficult to keep classes on track.

Whenever I introduce this topic I start off with a very basic review of the physics of relative motion – many students roll their eyes at this introduction as “too simple” because it is a rehash of simple vector addition. For example, if you are traveling down a road in a bus that is moving at 50 mph and you throw a ball in front of you at a speed of 20 mph (from your viewpoint), an observer on the side of the road will see the ball moving at 50 mph + 20 mph = 70 mph, assuming there is no acceleration involved. But here’s the rub, and quite an extraordinary claim on my part: that idea is wrong!

Now that usually gets my students’ attention. How can this simple rule of velocity addition be wrong?! Don’t we use these rules all the time in the world around us to do everything from plan out plane routes to driving down the freeway? When I drop the “this rule of velocity addition is wrong” bomb on my classes, it is wonderful to see the immediate skepticism on display in both the students’ questions and mannerisms. Some of them even look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

And this is a good thing, folks. By the end of the school year, I want my students to feel free to openly express their skepticism as an exercise in critical thinking. They should question me about a claim so bold as “the velocity addition we’ve used all year is wrong”, and they should demand a really good argument as to why my claim is accurate. And I should have to work hard to justify the claim, and I do. …

Click here to read the entire post!

Posted in education, physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Testing String Theory? How Real Science Progresses

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 16, 2010

Something very interesting has happened recently in the world of theoretical physics.  One of the hottest ideas around is the notion of so-called string theory: it’s the idea that all matter & energy in the universe – from the electrons & quarks that make up atoms to photons of light to everything in between – is composed of ultra-tiny strings of vibrating energy.  It’s a marvelous and mathematically elegant idea, one which many theoretical physicists believe holds the key to unifying the fundamental forces of nature, but it suffers from a big flaw: these strings are, according to the theory, so small that we have no way to experimentally detect them. Thus, if such is the case, then many physicists & critics of string theory have equated the idea with a dragon in the garage, an unfalsifiable notion which isn’t subject to scientific investigation.  I have placed myself into this category of string theory skeptics for quite a long time for this very reason…

… up until now, that is.  It seems that the question of whether or not string theory is testable, and therefore real science, has been answered.  That’s because recent theoretical analysis of string theory has revealed that it makes unique predictions which can be tested in a controlled laboratory setting having to do with a weird phenomenon called quantum entanglement. Up until now, physicists haven’t had a good way to really predict the behavior of systems that coupled via quantum entanglement, but it seems that some aspects of string theory can shed some light on this…

New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything’

String theory was originally developed to describe the fundamental particles and forces that make up our universe. The new research, led by a team from Imperial College London, describes the unexpected discovery that string theory also seems to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers can now test string theory.

Over the last 25 years, string theory has become physicists’ favourite contender for the ‘theory of everything’, reconciling what we know about the incredibly small from particle physics with our understanding of the very large from our studies of . Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment.

“If experiments prove that our predictions about quantum entanglement are correct, this will demonstrate that string theory ‘works’ to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum systems,” said Professor Mike Duff FRS, lead author of the study from the Department of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College London.

“This will not be proof that string theory is the right ‘theory of everything’ that is being sought by cosmologists and particle physicists. However, it will be very important to theoreticians because it will demonstrate whether or not string theory works, even if its application is in an unexpected and unrelated area of physics,” added Professor Duff. …

Read the rest of this entry »

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