Tag Archives: Einstein

TIME for a Little Soul-Searching

Yes, it was funny, as I hope you enjoyed in my post from Saturday; but really, when we step back and look at it, something is dreadfully wrong and quite sad.  Somehow TIME magazine, fairly reputable on the whole, in the process of reporting the nomination of a particle (the Higgs Boson; here’s my FAQ about it and here’s my layperson’s explanation of why it is important) as a Person (?) of the Year, explained the nature of this particle with a disastrous paragraph of five astoundingly erroneous sentences.   Treating this as a “teaching moment” (yes, always the professor — can’t help myself) I want to go through those sentences carefully and fix them, not to string up or further embarrass the journalist but to be useful to my readers.  So that’s coming in a moment.

But first, a lament.

Who’s at fault here, and how did this happen?  There’s plenty of blame to go around; some lies with the journalist, who would have been wise to run his prose past a science journalist buddy; some lies with the editors, who didn’t do basic fact checking, even of the non-science issues; some lies with a public that (broadly) doesn’t generally care enough about science for editors to make it a priority to have accurate reporting on the subject.  But there’s a history here.  How did it happen that we ended up a technological society, relying heavily on the discoveries of modern physics and other sciences over the last century, and yet we have a public that is at once confused by, suspicious of, bored by, and unfamiliar with science?   I think a lot of the blame also lies with scientists, who collectively over generations have failed to communicate both what we do and why it’s important — and why it’s important for journalists not to misrepresent it. Continue reading

Einstein, History and Science

On Saturday I gave a lecture, newly minted, on how Einstein is perceived in the public eye, and on how the numerous misconceptions about Einstein affect the way many non-experts believe that science is actually carried out.  Doing the research for the lecture involved, among other things, going back to some original sources I’d never read or had only read a long time ago, looking a bit at Einstein’s notebook from the period around 1912 (online here), and re-reading large portions of a wonderful biography of Einstein that I’m afraid was written by a physicist for physicists — and consequently largely unreadable without technical background, but a must-read for anyone who has that background.  I refer here to Abram Pais’s famous biography: “Subtle is the Lord…”, whose title refers to Einstein’s famous quip: “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”  (You can read about the origin of this quip in Pais’s book.)

I also enjoyed tracking down some videos online of various physical effects that Einstein explained, or that he predicted in advance.  These included videos (linked below) of Continue reading

End of the OPERA Story

In case you haven’t yet heard (check my previous post from this morning), neutrinos traveling 730 kilometers from the CERN laboratory to the Gran Sasso laboratory do arrive at the time Einstein’s special relativity predicts they would.

Of course (as the press mostly seems to forget) we knew that.  We knew it because

So the news from the Neutrino 2012 conference in Kyoto, on new data from May 2012 taken by OPERA and three nearby experiments, is no surprise to anyone who was paying attention back in March and early April; it’s exactly what we were expecting.

One thing that almost no one is reporting, as far as I can tell, is that CERN’s research director Sergio Bertolucci did not give the first talk on neutrino speeds in Kyoto.  That talk was given by Marcos Dracos, of OPERA.  Dracos presented both OPERA’s corrected 2011 results (with corrections based on the detailed investigation shown in March of the problems reported back in February) and also the new 2012 results, which were taken with a kind of short-pulse beams similar to that used in OPERA-2.  (A short pulse beam allows for a neutrino speed measurement to be made rather easily and quickly, at the expense of OPERA’s neutrino oscillation studies, which were the main purpose of building the OPERA experiment.)

Following Dracos’ talk, Bertolucci spoke next, and reported the results of the neighboring Borexino, LVD and ICARUS experiments on the May 2012 data, which along with OPERA are all bathed in the same CERN-to-Gran Sasso neutrino beam, and collected their data simultaneously.  All of the results are preliminary so the numbers below will change in detail.  But they are not going to change very much.  Here they are: neutrinos arrive at a time that differs from expectation by:

  • Borexino: δt = 2.7 ± 1.2 (stat) ± 3 (sys) ns
  • ICARUS: δt = 5.1 ± 1.1 (stat) ± 5.5 (sys) ns
  • LVD: δt = 2.9 ± 0.6 (stat) ± 3 (sys) ns
  • OPERA: δt = 1.6 ± 1.1 (stat) [+ 6.1, -3.7] (sys) ns

(Here “ns” means nanoseconds, and “stat” and “sys” mean statistical and systematic uncertainty.)  The original OPERA result was an early arrival of about 60 nanoseconds, about six standard deviations away from expectations.  You see that all the experiments are consistent with zero early/late arrival to about 1 standard deviation — almost too consistent, in fact, for four experiments.

So there is no longer any hint of any evidence whatsoever of a problem with the predictions of special relativity, and in particular with the existence of a universal speed limit.

A summing up is called for, but I want to write that carefully.  So unless something else comes up, that’s all for today.

Guess What?! Neutrinos Travel Just Below the Speed of Light

Five out of five experiments agree: neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed limit.

Or more precisely: to within the uncertainties of current measurements, neutrino speed, for neutrinos with energies far larger than their masses, is experimentally indistinguishable from the speed of light in vacuum.  This is just as expected in standard Einsteinian special relativity, which would predict they move just below light speed, by an amount too small to measure with current experiments.


Based on data taken in May 2012 using a beam of neutrinos sent from the CERN laboratory to the Gran Sasso lab, the four experiments ICARUS, LVD, Borexino and even OPERA (the source of  all the excitement) find results consistent with the speed of light, with uncertainties (at one-standard-deviation) about 10 times smaller than OPERA’s original measured deviation of neutrino speed from the speed of light.  The new results are consistent with ICARUS’s result from 2011 data.  Moreover, OPERA’s mistaken result from September and November 2011 — a claimed six standard deviations away from the expected speed — has now been corrected, following their detective work presented in March.  Even MINOS, a U.S. experiment, has revised their older result, which was previously slightly discrepant from the speed of light by a small amount (two standard deviations), and they find now that their data too are quite consistent with neutrinos traveling with light speed, though with much less precision in the measurement.

And so with a final quintet, sung in unison, this melodramatic comic OPERA buffa comes to a close.  As with all classic operatic comedies, there’s been crisis, chaos, and a good bit of hilarity, all the while with wise voices speaking reason to no avail, but in the end the overzealous are chastened, the righteous are made whole, everyone (even the miscreant) is happy, and all is well with the world.

Curtain!! Applause!!  Science Triumphant!!

Favorable review to follow when time permits.

The Stability and Instability of the Neutron

One of the strange but crucial features of our world is that every type of atom except hydrogen contains neutrons in its nucleus, even though neutrons, on their own, decay (to a proton, electron and anti-neutrino) within about 15 minutes on average.  At first glance this seems puzzling.  At second glance too.  How can stable matter be made from unstable ingredients?

The reason this is possible has everything to do with Einstein’s special relativity, and the way mass and energy are intertwined there.  A crucial role is played by the energy that is most important for binding things together, which I’ve called “interaction energy”.

I’ve now written an article explaining why neutrons inside of nuclei can be stable, giving the example of the deuteron (one proton bound to one neutron) which is the nucleus of “heavy hydrogen”, or “deuterium”.  If you understand this example, you’ll basically understand the point for other nuclei as well.

[For those of you in the New York City area: I’ll be joined by the wonderfully talented singer-songwriter-pianist Andrea Wittgens in giving a physics/music joint performance/presentation at the storied Cornelia Street Cafe, Sunday May 13th at 6 p.m., as part of their Entertaining Science series.  It’s entitled Rhapsody for Piano and Universe, and intended for the general public.  The place is pretty small, so get reservations in advance.]

How Einstein Trumped Newton

Sometimes I encounter people whose impression is that what Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity (the one that said no object’s speed can exceed the speed of light in vacuum, etc.) did in “overthrowing” the ideas of the past was somehow like what the Bolsheviks did to the Czars twelve years later– out with the old order, in with the new, and let nothing remain behind.  The widespread notion, inherited from philosopher and historian Thomas Kuhn, is that a new paradigm arose, and the old was swept away.  The truth is far different.  Important parts of the conceptual superstructure of 19th century physics had to be replaced, but the predictive mathematical core was not replaced, but rather was extended.   It was like tearing the roof and facade off a building while keeping the interior beams and columns, then extending the structure to make it much larger than before, and finally giving it a very novel external appearance.  That’s why the Einsteinian revolution was possible at all! Newton’s equations had already been used to design all sorts of real-world 18th and 19th century technology.  If Einstein’s equations hadn’t contained those of Newton and his descendants as a special case, they would have been in conflict with the real world… a no-no for a scientific theory.

Sine this is so important to understand, I’ve written an article illustrating how Einstein’s equations relating energy, momentum, mass and speed were an extension, not a replacement, of the equations that were previously in use.   It describes how Einstein unified two separate classes of equations, one set that could be used for massive objects moving slowly compared to the speed of light, and the other for light itself, into a single class of equations, one that not only included the two previous classes but made predictions for massive objects moving at speeds comparable to that of light.