Sunday, October 9, 2011

Relativity is Intact, Our Pride is in Jeopardy

Few Fridays ago, early in the morning, I received an SMS from my science apotheosizing dear friend, conveying news to the effect that the light speed barrier was shattered at the CERN. That was very interesting, but insufficient; was it, at a more precise level, the discovery of a superluminal particle, or accelerating a particle across the infamous "c" threshold? A little bit later I learned it was a possibility of the former and not the latter.

That does not defy Relativity. Yet most of the articles I read, written on popular news sites, in a most critical time to the understanding of the public, were claiming the nullifying of Einstein's theory in case the reported results were corroborated. So much for science journalism due diligence and responsibility.

The theory of Relativity does not strictly impose an upper speed limit on motion. It sets, however, a speed barrier that is not allowed to be crossed by particles with velocities on either of its sides. This means that a particle found to be always traveling at speeds higher than that of light is not, according to the theory, allowed to slow down to speeds lower than the speed of light, and vice versa.

Actually the tachyon was conceptually born as soon as Special Relativity's foundations were laid, as a theoretically predicted class of particles that might be found to exhibit superluminal velocities. But it was quickly and deliberately pushed under the table of scientific discourse because of the dilemma such particles pose for the very foundations of human consciousness, for they break away with causality. Such tenuous grounds for dismissal. But things, it seems, can get political even in physics.

To eschew the abstruse nature of proper technical language, and to express this in a more intelligible and exciting manner, superluminal particles open the possibility, at least in theory, for communications across time. An example that gets the point across effectively, even though it might not be fully sound in concept, would be downloading a file using the internet using faster than light signals. You hit "download" at this precise moment, and you got the file downloaded few hours ago. Reading this, any human being should hit a mental impasse.

What temporal standpoint should we adopt as our departure point in internalizing what happened? The second when we clicked on "download"? Or the past, when the file was already downloaded? Either way we will never comprehend such a reality. Why should I download a file when all out of a sudden I had it on my computer, brushing aside the concomitant astonishment? Yet according to the theory of concern here, you will do just that, like it or not, as under its laws the totality of reality is absolutely invariant, regardless of how you observe it. This gives you a hint about the basic motivation behind Physic's, may be partial, relinquishment of its child tachyon little after it was born.

Even though this denial of conclusions belies the spirit of discovery, that which fuels the endeavor of natural sciences, it is, by and large, expected. Modern science wise, we are only coming of age. Still dumbfounded by how it had radicalized our understanding of the universe in such a short period of time, and made too clumsy by our lack of wisdom and humility to handle with sufficient care the precarious hope it promises of furthering this comprehension. Fortunately though, the much older and wiser philosophy is there for our counsel and guidance.

A very satisfactory explanation of the aforementioned impasse was discussed some 250 years ago. A philosopher called Kant - personally, he is one intellectual I grit my teeth on the thought that I can't read any of his treatise in their original language of German - proposing to transcend the irreconcilability of two ajar schools of thought, stated reality as completely independent from the human consciousness. From that point, he proceeds to describe a set of what is known in philosophy's parlance as a prior concepts of knowledge, which, according to Kant, are inescapably inherent in the structure of the human mind.

These a prior concepts are to our cerebration, more or less, what breathing is to our existence; both are subliminal, but essential to their relative processes. It is less than often that their existence crosses the threshold of our consciousness yet we can't conceive of a meaningful sentence that does not imply a sense of time and place, or the space and time a prior. Just as much, we can't construct even the most simple of construable statements without embedding into them some form of cause and effect, generally expressed through a subject and an object. This we call the causality a prior, and it is what pertains the most of these a prior concepts to the scope of this article.

Facing a reality where an effect precedes a cause, and Kant would nod on this, humans are somewhat like a cat in front of a highly sophisticated contraption. The cat gazes hard at the weird device trying to tease out a mate, a shelter, a predator, a prey, or a rolling ball of twine. Other higher aspects or functions of the mechanism are of no interest to the cat, simply because for it they don't exist.

But that is more indicative of the cat's inferiority than being a derogation to the splendors of reality, das ding an sich.

[Update: March, 16, 2012, a CERN press release reported that another experiment on a set of neutrinos found them to be travelling at speeds consistent with that of light. Almost a month before, a press release indicated the possibility that the superluminal speeds announced last September had originated in a couple of faulty components in the detector setup. However, with the testimonies of more than four experiments, the adjudication is expected to be heard this coming May.]

[Update: June, 11, 2012, the latest CERN press release on the issue put an end to all speculations by announcing that the results of last September were due to a technical problem in the setup]