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]


  1. Science apotheosizing? Moi?

    Live long and prosper!

  2. The particles in question are actually neutrinos:

    Tachyons are a class of *hypothetical* particles which are artifacts of our limited understanding. Their assumed presence enables us to solve equations but they do not exist. General relativity *does* impose an upper limit (c) on the speed of travel. Tachyons satisfy the equations of general relativity the same way imaginary numbers satisfy equations involving square roots of negative numbers but neither exist in reality.

    The superluminal measurements published by CERN are note-worthy but without a proper explanation these measurements don't even qualify to challenge general relativity.

  3. Emi,

    That is one great quality in my own opinion when it is demonstrated in a healthy way, just like the case of my friend here. Though quoting a science fiction character does not count as a type of healthy veneration of science ;)


    I think it was all over the news that these were a type of neutrinos, but for my purposes here, that was a bit superfluous to mention.

    For your second concern you know that there are many solutions to the equations of general relativity, right? We arbitrarily discarded those allowing for weird features such as time reversal or superluminal motion because we think they don't describe our universe. In that sense, this finding nullify this particular solution you are talking about, and any other that predicts the same constraints, but not the whole of the theory.

    Go to ScienceDirect, if you can access it, and then search for "tachyon general relativity" or "tachyon dark energy". If you have no access, then you can at least go through the abstracts and you will see that tachyons and general relativity can get along really well. Some actually predicted an association between dark energy and tachyons, others suggested a type of neutrinos that exhibits tachyonic nature.

    Your comment raises a question though. How can you substantiate the claim that neutrinos are artifacts of our limited understanding? On what basis did you demarcate what we understand and what we don't? This might sound like I am contradicting Kant, but I am not, for Kant rendered a clear mechanism behind the a prior concepts he claimed, and they were strongly backed by the theory of evolution.

    Your last point is a bit absurd anon. May be you did not think it thoroughly, but it is the same as saying that the Mickelson-Morley experiment results are note worthy but without an explanation they don't even qualify to challenge classical physics and the ether hypothesis. So if no compelling explanations were ever given to its results, does that mean that ether would still be our best bet?

    My point here is that we should not jump to conclusions. It might turn out to be the death of relativity, or that it would still be intact, but the point is we should not jump to any wild conclusions, like the media had already done, and to make sure that we stand on firm grounds when we pass judgments.

  4. (1)

    The fact that tachyons are hypothetical does not imply they should not "get along well" with relativity as you seem to have understood.

    On the contrary, hypothetical objects in general (tachyons included) are probably just as important as real objects in the development of knowledge and expression of scientific theories (imaginary numbers, for instance, have countless applications in mathematics and physics). However, these objects are yet to be observed (hence being called hypothetical). For all the importance of imaginary numbers, for example, you wouldn't find a tree bearing 5i apples.

    "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."

    It can't be.

    Even putting aside the fact that the only class of superluminal particles are hypothetical and have not been yet observed, the neutrinos used in the experiment were well below the speed of light at the start of the experiment and hence cannot be superluminal/tachyons (superluminal particles cannot travel at a speed below c).


    Theories are not rejected when observations that do not conform to the theory are made.

    Theories are rejected when rival theories succeed in predicting/explaining an observation while the current theory does not. Experiments where theories predict different outcomes and hence one of them gets refuted are referred to as 'crucial tests'.

    The Mickelson-Morley experiment is an example of a crucial test involving special relativity and the theory of luminiferous ether.

    There can't be a crucial test of one theory without involving any rival theories. That's why an observation of exceeding the speed of light does not *alone* even qualify to challenge special relativity. The observation must be accompanied with a new theory that succeeds in providing an explanation or a prediction of the observation (while special relativity has failed).

    If we were refuting theories based on unexplained observations, we would have long abandoned general relativity for we actually have a plethora of incompatible observations generated by quantum experiments and dictated by quantum mechanics (which is at complete odds with general relativity).


    "My point here is that we should not jump to conclusions. It might turn out to be the death of relativity, or that it would still be intact, but the point is we should not jump to any wild conclusions, like the media had already done, and to make sure that we stand on firm grounds when we pass judgments."

    There are simply no conclusions to jump it. The observations recently published by CERN (as they are, without an explanation) have no bearing on the status of general relativity.

  5. Anon,

    Tachyons and general relativity do go well means that general relativity does not impose a speed limit except in certain solutions. 5i apples cannot be translated to something meaningful without a context, or an equation. What would that be? A number of physical objects? Then that does not exist. But 5i mass translates to a mass of faster than light particles according to one solution of relativity. And you still ignore the many other solutions of general relativity.

    Tachyon motion might have been observed this time. Such observations and claims were made few times ago, but were not given considerable consideration because of the class of machines used to detect them. Btw, why is the Tachyon yet to be observed but imaginary, while the higg is yet to be observed but might exist? There has to be a reason much more profound than imaginary masses, if again we neglect the solutions were Tachyons have positive ones.

    The theory says if something was always found to be traveling at the speed of light from the point it was born it should always be so. And tachyons are born the moment the structures of an atom are smashed. H2O is not as simple as 2 H and 1 O bound to gather. It is a completely new entity in reality, but it’s a habit of descartization (from Descartes) that makes us see something as its constituents, and that is not necessarily the correct way. It does help in understanding a range of behaviors but beyond that it becomes useless. This means that the neutrino was not always inside the atom before it was smashed, or existed for that matter.

    Your point about the scientific process of discovery is one interpretation, but not the only. I don't think there is a set of strict rules to adhere to once a violation is observed or evident. To me, the scientific process cannot be captured in a frozen moment, or continuous blocks of moments, from a certain standpoint for it is by nature flowing and complex. This you can only see in a broader view, without any logical gates like processing. So some might find a potential solution in revamping the contradicted theory, while others see the theory is crippled beyond repair, if I am to simplify the many approaches that can be discerned for the purpose of our discussion here.

    Relativity was largely verified in the macro world, but not in the micro realm, and it is visa versa for the quantum theory. Scientists understand this and this is why they are working on the theory of everything.

    “There are simply no conclusions to jump it” is one kind of conclusions I am warning against, just like that of media, and scientists in many different contexts including this one. This is in the light of my understanding of the scientific process of course, and since we have different conceptions in this regard, then I think we will not agree on this.

  6. a correction on my former comment:

    a tachyon's mass^2 is negative by definition. So they can never be positive, but what I meant to say is that tachyons according to some physicist is allowed by general relativity and not only in local sense.