Faster than light? What would Albert say?


A view of the OPERA detector in Gran Sasso, Italy. Neutrino beams from CERN in Switzerland are sent over 700km through the Earth’s crust to the laboratory in Italy.

Living in the 21st century, in a age of true enlightenment, I sometimes get confused and think because our society as a whole possess a body of knowledge that I possess it – worse, sometimes I imagine I have somehow contributed to it or deserve some credit for it.   All of that knowledge does make us smarter than our predecessors, doesn’t it?  Look at all of things we can do and the ways we use the practical applications of that knowledge.  We drive cars, take pills, ride elevators, eat nutritious and varied diets, built towering buildings and so much more.  And we get smarter and better informed because of our technologies; we use cell phone, radios, televisions, and computers and all day long; and they provide us with a constant stream of information, news and interesting facts. At no time in history did a society have more collective knowledge and more access to its knowledge than we have at this moment.

A person of my station in society living  200, 300 or 400 years ago, might have been literate; reading a few books, not thousands, but maybe hundreds in an lifetime – the farther back you go the smaller that number would become.  A few years of school would have given me some knowledge of my language, my country’s history, some arithmetic and a bit of science.  My practical and useful knowledge of the world would have come from my work and life-style.   It is likely that a great deal of what I knew about the world would have come from my religion and from the bible – I would have been able to recite biblical truths, but not prove them.  Almost everything I knew, except every day things, I would not have known so much as simply believed it.  And the farther back I project myself in history the greater would have been my reliance on belief and my willingness to accept the teachings of my religious and political leaders.

In our world, that isn’t true is it?  The majority of people in the world today, as witnessed by the events of 2011, do not believe their political leaders;  although there is still a great deal of power and influence to be found in religious leadership around the world – even the Pope has his challengers.  But for the rest of our knowledge we know stuff – we read, listen to radio and television commentary, watch a wide variety of educational television and DVD programing and possibly even attend lectures given by learned university professors.  That makes us smarter, better educated, right?  It might make you smarter and better educated, but it does not seem to help me.  I am stuck accepting the opinions and statements of all of the people who write the books I read, produce the programs I listen to and watch and those learned ones who so eagerly lecture.  They might as well wear long black robes and read from secret, sacred text for all that I really understand – actually much of what they say is in secret language – the language of mathematics or other complex technical jargon.  And like a 16th or 17th doppelganger of me, I beleive what they present as fact and truth, because the majority of it I cannot independently confirm or prove and certainly not disprove.

This week, scientists in Europe managed to send some particle, called a neutrino, from one end of a long tunnel to the other at a speed faster than the speed of light.  That shocked the world of science and immediately produced theories about time travel and other things guaranteed to warm the heart of a good science fiction writer.  It was shocking because up to that very moment nearly every person on the planet believed – no not believed – knew that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light.  And it just might not be true – wow! That means that even all of those brilliant minds, the scientists, physicists and mathematicians – those few people on earth who really could prove things and independently verify facts – were just reciting their cataclysm, like the rest of us.  Of course, the claim of faster than light travel is still just a claim – the scientists will do their due diligence and if they are unable to confirm the claim, will revert back to the speed of a beam of light traveling faster than all other things as an absolute truth; just as Albert Einstein imaged it in his famous thought experiment over 100 years ago.  You and I however, will simply learn the new creed and repeat it at the appropriate place in the service.  Life can be very confusing, just when I thought I knew something I discover I probably don’t really know much at all.


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