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Posted at 12:48 PM ET, 11/18/2011

The neutrinos do it again

The neutrinos did it again.

In another CERN experiment, those valiant little subatomic particles beat the speed of light. And this one fixed some of the conditions of the first trial that skeptics feared had muddied the results. The outcome held up. Everything we know, it seems, is wrong. Nothing exceeds the speed of light? There go the neutrinos again.

If true, this is what people on Reddit are describing as a “shorts-eating level event,” in that a Respectable Scientist (Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey) has gone on the record saying that if the finding proves true, ”and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.”

The result comes as no surprise. In fact, it’s strangely reassuring.

Generally, nothing we manage to do is weirder than what already exists somewhere in nature. There used to be dodos and dinosaurs, and all we can come up with is a deficit supercommittee. But we do our best.

The news these days is of almost subatomic weirdness. A senator extinguishes a fire on someone’s head. Someone brings a paternity suit against Justin Bieber, then drops it. Newt Gingrich is the Frontrunner Apparent in the GOP race. Herman Cain — a man who says things like “How do you say delicious in Cuban?” — used to be.

The Congressional deficit supercommittee may be alive or dead, but no one wants to open the box to find out. The most recent news is that it may not matter if it comes up with any savings or not, because, hey, the draconian Massive Across-The-Board Cuts its failure would trigger won’t take effect until January 2013, which is to say they will never take effect at all because the Mayans are scheduled to return in 2012 and take back the planet. (Or, as Congressional analysts like to put it, “The 2012 election may resolve this debate by providing a clear mandate,” which is equally likely.)

The Occupy Movement was forced to stop occupying Zuccotti Park in New York City. Now it lurches around as though worried it can’t simultaneously have forward velocity and a stated policy position at any given moment.

“Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part One” is in theaters. This massively anticipated movie, which will be a box-office if not a critical success, hinges on a girl giving birth gruesomely onscreen to a half-vampire child, after sleeping with a man whose skin sparkles.

It makes about as much sense as anything else.

From far away, most things look neat enough. Even atoms, which I hear contain a non-stop party of improbable activity, have a comfortable structure from the far vantage-point of a textbook page. Glimpsed from space, Earth seems sedate and lovely, a teaspoonful of blue in a silent sky. But we are in the thick of it and know better.

Still, we had a few things that seemed under control. We had some scientific laws. E equaled MC squared. “We are pretty sure this is right,” we said, “because it gave us the iPhone.” (That, incidentally, is also what we said about Steve Jobs.)

Now we’re not so sure.

We thought the subatomic realm was crazy before. It contained things like quarks. And there might be a phenomenon called Quantum Entanglement, which according to an Agressively Hip Young Adult Science Book I once read means that some subatomic particles are bad at setting boundaries after the breakup. So for it to get any weirder required real effort and application and a magical experiment that was over before it began, like the Kardashian marriage.

Of course, even this experiment may be wrong. There may be another error that CERN failed to take into account. And our iPhones still click along. Siri seems unfazed by these developments.

But the neutrinos seem to have noticed that the theme of news this year is Nobody Has Any Idea What’s Happening Really. As soon as anyone gave any indication that he knew what was going on — or thought he did — we discovered he’d been sending obscene images of himself across the Internet, or he died on us.

So perhaps the experiment’s wrong. Never underestimate human error. But the odds that the world is merely crazier than we thought? Hardly negligible. Especially not these days.

By  |  12:48 PM ET, 11/18/2011

 
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