Light and Faster Things

Wednesday evening, scientists at CERN announced that they had observed a neutrino breaking the speed of light- not by tricky means such as bending spacetime or quantum teleportation, but the old-fashioned way- by going very, very fast.

The significance of this announcement cannot be overstated.  Since Einstein, the speed of light has been a defining concept in cosmology, setting the boundary for everything from the expansion of the Universe and the exchange of information therein, to the relationship between matter and energy.  The speed of light was more than an arbitrary boundary- it was a fundamental quality of the universe.  If the CERN reserchers’ observation is accurate, it challenges all of this.  A massive crack would open in our understanding of the Universe, a true scientific revolution would ensue.

A question arises: will we get it right this time?  This question is neither silly nor presumptuous; the pursuit of science (and cosmology in particular) has been predicated on the idea that a complete and accurate model of the cosmos is waiting for us out there in the abyss of undiscovered principles, and that one day we will find it.  And yet, this assumption is hardly a given.  Imagine this claim with any other species in our place.  Imagine that someone proposed that a complete scientific understanding of the universe was attainable by an amoeba, or a lemur, or a flamingo.  Humans, however, are supposed to be different.

It is an oft-told tale that the scientific quest of the past millennium has progressively stripped humanity of its privileged place in the universe- first by removing the Earth from the center of the cosmos, then by redefining the human species as only an animal among many.  But for all this, the ancient (though by no means universal) doctrine of anthropic exceptionalism remains an unspoken assumption within science.  Indeed, it is the fundamental article of faith upon which the entire scientific enterprise is based- that the Universe is intelligible, and specifically, that it is intelligible to us.  We glorified chimpanzees, with brains evolved to locate edible roots and defend our tribes from sabretooth tigers, are expected to use these same brains to analyze the contents of stars.

The converse assumption is that our minds are wired for survival rather than truth.  If this is the case, then it may well be that the rich pageantry of supernovae and DNA, quantum uncertainty and thermodynamics, may just be a fiction fabricated by our simian survival instincts.  Indeed, such a position would cast all of our ideas, no matter how self-evident, into doubt, all the way down to causality and basic arithmetic.

There is something both humbling and exhilarating in this idea, but there is no reason to let it restrict the scope of the universe that we’ve (perhaps) come to know.  We can and must act as though we can understand the world.  We must act thus, even with the knowledge that that it may be an evolutionarily useful lie.  Because even if the cosmologies that spring from it are myths, they are myths of an unprecedented type- myths that carry within them the seeds of their own destruction, myths that can be disproved but never proved, and yet continue to spring, one after another, growing to the size of the Universe before being shattered by an impossibly fast neutrino, to be rebuilt again.


4 thoughts on “Light and Faster Things

  1. You’ve made a number of assumptions in your exposition which don’t necessarily stand trial to reason. Specifically, your claims about what can be called into doubt and how this universe may work fundamentally. While there are formal arguments to the contrary, I’d like to suggest the works of Descartes and Hume on a more philosophical note.

    • I was mostly trying to avoid jumping to conclusions, really. The jury’s still out on whether or not the speed of light was broken. I was just speculating on what it would mean intellectually if it did, and then rambling a lot from there.
      Hume and Descartes were certainly interested in our capacity for understanding, but both lived in a time when the earliest scientific paradigms were still ascendant. We, on the other hand, have the benefit of several centuries of such paradigms rising and falling, and this throws our current ones into perspective. Thomas Kuhn back at you.

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