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Posted at 04:47 PM ET, 09/23/2011

CERN neutrinos don’t “disprove” Einstein

[UARS update: Aerospace Corp. has it coming down in the Sahara. But the prediction has changed so much that I’m not sure that we should even talk location yet. The bigger news is that UARS is sauntering along as if it really doesn’t want to crash in time for the final edition of the paper (this adds new meaning to the phrase “crashing on deadline.”]

I keep seeing stories that say that the CERN neutrino experiment (please read the excellent story by my colleague Brian Vastag) may have proved Einstein “wrong.” See here, for example. And here. And here. But as I said yesterday, I’m sticking with Einstein.

Even if this measurement holds up, it doesn’t really prove Einstein wrong about the speed of light being a cosmic speed limit, any more than Einstein proved Newton wrong about gravity, motion, light, etc. These revolutionary theories build on one another. Newton’s physics correctly explains [explain? I struggle with the singular-plural there] most ordinary phenomena as we experience it, and Einstein’s relativity does the same for things moving at great speed.

Einstein’s insight in 1905 was that there was no fixed frame of reference for time and space, and thus no absolute causality, no this-before-that, no preferential “present” moment. The Michelson-Morley experiment failed to find evidence that the hypothesized ether altered the speed of light [am I remembering this right? — I need to be modest here, because I’m not a physicist, just an internationally beloved polymath], and Einstein said, OK, fine, so maybe the weird result is accurate and there’s really no ether. And maybe if you chase a train holding a flashlight and you’re riding a bike inside an elevator you’ll measure the speed of light as identical to what you’d see if you were sound asleep in a physics lecture (am I remembering his thought experiment correctly?).

So, fixed space, fixed time, get outta here.

Nothing about this new CERN result changes these insights as far as I can see.

Nor, as far as I can discern, does it say anything AT ALL about the famous equation E=MCsquared. Energy and matter continue to have an equivalency, and atomic bombs still release enormous amounts of energy.

Some people may have a tendency to hope that everything they’ve been taught will turn out to be untrue. How many people actually liked high school physics? This is payback.

And some people may like it when science has to backtrack, because if Einstein is wrong, then maybe that guy Darwin was wrong too about people evolving from apes, right?

Science, though, is marvelously self-correcting over time, and you should not expect a theory that has been upheld through experiment and observation for 106 years to get jettisoned all of a sudden like last week’s tuna salad.

If the new measurement is confirmed, it will merely show that Einstein didn’t completely cover the universe with the giant tarpaulin of his mind.

It’ll mean there’s other stuff going on. Physics isn’t at a dead end.

But Einstein will still have gotten it right.

By  |  04:47 PM ET, 09/23/2011

 
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