Friday, September 23, 2011

Let there be . . . neutrino!

     So much for the speed of light!  Or so the papers reported this morning!  It seems that researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva have observed a nuetrino (a sub-atomic particle) that travelled faster than light.  Given that modern physics is pretty much premised on the Einsteinian principle that NOTHING travels faster than light, this discovery basically rocks the scientific world.  A tenet of scientific faith, challenged by a scientific experiment.  Cool!  A researcher at Fermilab (an American counterpart to CERN) was quoted as saying "[If it's true,] it's going to cause us problems . . . no doubt about it."
     What other certainties, accepted as true, are waiting to fall?
     The report this morning comes on the heels of my reading a book review of a graphic book/comic book soon to be released by noted evolutionary biologist and feisty atheist, Richard Dawkins.  The book is entitled The Magic of Reality:  How We Know What's Really True.  Hmmm.  I wonder if Dawkins will quickly recall the book and add something about this challenge to a scientific "truth"?   I imagine that Dawkins will take this in stride; he is a good scientist.  But there is, in his title (in my opinion) an implication that we can know what is "really true" through the scientific method.
      I think we can know, through the scientific method, that which the scientific method can test and evaluate.  And we need to hold any findings as tentative; we need to approach the results of experiments with humility.  Another famous scientist, physicist Richard Feynman wrote of this humility:  "Every scientific law, every scientific principle, every statement of the results of an observation is some kind of a summary which leaves out details, because nothing can be stated precisely. . . . It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions."*  Feynman goes on to highlight the role of doubt in science.  In a subsequent chapter, he highlights the role of doubt in religion as well.
      I believe in the humility of faith.  It suggests an openness to new discoveries no less than a good scientist is open to startling results to experiments -- even IF it means re-thinking long-held beliefs.  What we understand about the physical world has changed over time.  Religions form and re-form themselves over time as they come into contact/conflict with new realities/circumstance.  We tend to forget about a lot of those changes as we sit in the midst of the current "truths" -- whether we're scientists or religious people or both (Feynman, though not a religious man, certainly thought one could be both!**).
      What does that neutrino portend?   It certainly rocks our world.  But so did Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Baha'u'llah.  And when they appeared, their contemporaries weren't certain what they would portend -- and in some cases that uncertainty translated into fear.  But we've moved on . . . . mostly . . . and generally in a positive direction!
      So, let there be . . . neutrino!  Rock us on!


*      Richard P. Feynman.  The Meaning of It All:  Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist.   Perseus Books, 1998:  25, 26.
**    Ibid., 36.

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