Is science sometimes in danger of getting tunnel vision? Recently published ebook author, Ian Miller, looks at other possible theories arising from data that we think we understand. Can looking problems in a different light give scientists a different perspective?

Speedy Neutrinos

This is a little off the topic of chemistry, but it is a very rare example of what Kuhn described as a crisis in theory. The crisis is that outside the claimed limit of experimental error, muon neutrinos exceeded light speed (c). The most obvious way this could happen is experimental error, however nobody seems to be able to locate any error. This is potentially the only example I can think of during the last 40 years, and it will be interesting to see whether the process Kuhn described will eventuate. According to Kuhn, there will be various stages: denial, grudging acceptance, a flurry of explanations, then something will settle into the new paradigm, in some cases not necessarily based on logic but often based on the reputation of the proposer.
From a personal point of view, there is a further lesson. Part 2 of my ebook contained outlines of what I think it would be helpful for chemists to know about theory in physics, and vice versa, and there follows 72 examples of problems. Not everything I thought of made it. One question I contemplated was along the lines, if Einsteinian mechanics were to break down, where would it, and why would it? (The concept of relativity was actually laid down by Galileo.) In the end I discarded the question as being too unlikely. So, what are some of the possibilities?
(1) Einstein's assumption of no preferred frame of reference, i.e. every observation point is equivalent, is wrong. I am uncomfortable with this because I cannot see why it is only seen with only this experiment now?
(2) An astronomer I know suggested the neutrinos were taking a short cut, making some motion through another dimension, say. The concept involves curved space, e.g. a 2 dimensional "flatlander" on the surface of the Earth could in principle send a neutrino through the Earth. Again, I don't see what is so special about this experiment, so why?
(3) My prejudice is for a yet to be discovered force. Einstein's relativity, according to Feynman, could be obtained from the mass enhancement equation, effectively by using the same equations that lead to the mass enhancement equation but going the other way. Mass is most likely to be measured from the resistance to acceleration. The electromagnetic force is mediated at light speed, so any accelerating force has to "catch" the particle, and as light speed approaches, this becomes increasingly less effective, the acceleration drops to zero and "mass" is effectively infinite. This would break down if there were an as yet undiscovered force that was mediated at a speed d instead of c, where d>c. Relativity would still work, but for this force c must be replaced with d in the various equations. The reason for this view lies in the question, how did such a neutrino even get that close to c? What accelerated it? A minor undiscovered source of experimental error does not solve the problem because the neutrino must still approach c; only a significant clanger in the experimental method does.
Chemists, of course, are hardly likely to make any impact on this problem, but this gives us a privileged position: we can watch while others scratch their heads. It should be interesting to watch what unfolds, because whatever else, this is a result that cannot be ignored, unless it is so wrong it should be!
Posted by Ian Miller on Oct 14, 2011 11:44 PM Europe/London

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