October 19, 2011

A Journalist's Take on Science

Last month, science was rocked to its core when it was announced the speed of light may not actually be the interstellar speed limit after all. And, since it was science that was rocked, pretty much no one else cared.

Unfortunately, I'm a journalist, which means I have to both pretend to care about science AND write like I know what I'm talking about. So, let me just say, this announcement is huge. Maybe.

Einstein's "Theory of Relativity" holds that nothing can travel faster than light, because the faster an object moves, the more mass it requires, and once an object approaches the speed of light, it would need infinite mass--which means any time you're standing in light, you're being crushed by mass. As a journalist, I have to think about this concept in layman's terms, so imagine the impossibility of Rosie O'Donnell running a three minute mile, and you can begin to understand Einstein's point. Although, I personally think he just smoked a lot of marijuana--patent clerks have a lot of extra time on their hands, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, last month scientists observed some quirky little particles called neutrinos outpacing light particles by 60 nanoseconds. I wrote that last sentence with such confidence, I'm betting you think I know what neutrinos and nanoseconds actually are. I don't, of course, but "Neutrinos" sounds like a super healthy cereal, and "nanoseconds" sounds like a second helping of "Nanos," whatever the heck those are.

Obviously, the implications of this discovery are huge, and scientists worldwide are in a tizzy about what it all means. After all, science--particularly physics--has been solidly grounded for almost a century on the understanding that nothing can travel faster than light.

In my view, it's ridiculous to think light could maintain that kind of stamina for nearly 100 years. Do you think Abe Vigoda could win the 100 yard dash in the 2012 Olympics? Of course not. Neutrinos are simply the Usain Bolt of physics, while light is Carl Lewis. I'm really throwing out a lot of names no one knows here, aren't I?

Whatever. The point is, physicists are now faced with a dilemma. If neutrinos can travel faster than light, that means Einstein was wrong. Previously, to suggest Einstein was wrong meant a scientist would awaken one night to find a severed horse head in their bed. OK, this is science we're talking about, so a scientist would more likely awaken to find their hand dipped in a cup of warm water. Regardless, to say Einstein was wrong used to be a pretty big deal, but now it appears he actually was. . . WRONG.

Einstein's been dead since 1955, so he's probably not going to get too upset about being told he was wrong, but for living scientists this development is like being told there's no Santa, or that Paris Hilton is a societal asset, or that Charlie Sheen makes sound life choices. It means scientists have to question some of their most strongly held theories, and scientists hate that.

My advice, as a journalist, is simple. Keep telling light that it's really, really fast. Give light continued confidence. If light comes in second after a foot race with neutrinos, give light a participation ribbon and take light out for ice cream afterwards. Tell light it's still special and important.

We still need light. After all, we have "light bulbs" not "neutrino bulbs" and, last I checked, Darth Vader wielded a "light saber" not a "neutrino saber," which would no doubt be a faster saber, but that's not important.

It's okay that there's something faster than light. It keeps science fresh, and everyone knows stale science tastes simply awful. It means anything is still possible.

It means Abe Vigoda could actually win the 100 meter dash in the 2012 Olympics. How wickedly cool would that be?

Posted by Ryan at October 19, 2011 10:36 AM | TrackBack
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