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High Frontiers and Cheap Snarks

Note: This article has a coda about the CERN neutrino results, which came out while I was writing it.

Two seemingly disparate but actually related items came up in the news recently. One was the discovery of a planet circling a close binary star system given the placeholder name of Kepler 16. The other was the publication of a viral protein’s crystal structure.

What, I hear you ask, do these have in common? Well, for one both projects used crowdsourcing (now going by the PR-friendly term “citizen science”). The other commonality was the anti-scientist hype: the media trumpeted gleefully that non-scientists are more prescient and clever than scientists. In contrast to plodding experts, prophetic film directors (“OMG, Tatooine!”) and intrepid gamers simply vault over obstacles and gracefully yet squarely hit the target. Kinda like Luke Skywalker homing on the tiny dot of vulnerability in the planet-sized Death Star with little flying experience and eyes wide shut because, ya know, the Force is with him.

Let’s parse the circumbinary planet first. Close to half the stars are in binary configurations, and about half of these have accretion disks. Hence, the likelihood of planets in such systems is very high. Astrophysicists’ models have shown that a planet can stably orbit either around one member of a widely separated pair or around a very tight pair. The first discovery of a planet circling a close binary dates from 1993 (or 2003, if one counts the final confirmation of the original observation). What makes the Kepler 16 system a first is that its planet appears to be smaller than Jupiter. As for prescience, beyond the astrophysicists’ theoretical calculations, Isaac Asimov had written Nightfall and Chesley Bonestell had painted Double Star long before Tatooine was even a solitary neuronal firing in George Lucas’ brain.

So now on to the crystal structure that “had stumped scientists for years but was solved by gamers in a few days”. To begin with, this was not the first crowdsourcing scientific project as touted. The honors for that must go to SETI@home, launched in 1997. There have been many others since, across disciplines. Beyond that, the people in the protein folding contest used a program developed by scientists (FoldIt) and half of the dozen or so participating “gamers” were biologists themselves. Crucially, they were given NMR and X-ray diffraction data to constrain and guide their steps. Finally, the result (a model, which means it’s still hypothetical) primarily aided crystallographers in placing heavy metal elements so as to get well-formed crystals, whose X-ray patterns gave the real, definitive proof of the structure.

Parenthetically, protein folding is a topic of perennial fascination to both creationists and believers in the strong anthropic principle. Many non-biologists, including physicists who blithely delve into biology in popsci books, are fond of intoning ad nauseam that amino acid strings would take billyuns and billyuns of years to fold correctly – hence god/intelligent design/a privileged universe/fine tuning of constants. In fact, with one exception that I can think of, proteins that have been unraveled into amino acid strings never re/fold at all (nor do they fold efficiently or correctly in programs like Rosetta, that presume complete lack of folding). Proteins fold as they get made, while they emerge from the ribosome. So they fold locally to achieve partial energy minima (so-called secondary structure) and these partly folded structures quickly coalesce into the final tertiary structure. On the technical side, making protein crystals is a difficult, delicate art – the biological equivalent of glass blowing. Like coaxing cells into growing, it’s part craft, part experience-based knowledge so deep that it becomes instinct.

Involving many people in parsing scientific data is a tremendous idea: it gets non-scientists familiar with the concepts, process and vocabulary of science, it can accelerate portions of the analysis, and it helps forge a sense of collective purpose and achievement. The great success of crowdsourcing highlights the unique human ability to notice anomalies instead of undeviatingly following protocols as computers do. This human attribute, not so incidentally, is one of the strongest arguments for sending crewed exploration teams to places like Mars.

At the same time, scientists are not stodgy techs in lab coats (whose wearing is almost entirely confined to movies; in real life, MDs are far likelier to sport such togs). To be a good scientist, let alone a great one, you must possess not only knowledge, rigor and stamina but also imagination and the informed, trained intuition that enables you to recognize patterns as well as deviations from them (aka “the prepared mind”). And distributed data churning won’t replace trained experimentation and thinking any time soon – or later.

Anglo-Saxon cultures have a strong anti-intellectual streak. Some of it is the lingering mystique of the British gentleman dilettante; some is the American obsession with self-determination. Yet the same people who treat scientists like class enemies and jeer at their painstaking mindsets and work habits follow woo gurus – from homeopaths to investment advisors to Teabagger televangelists – with unsurprising outcomes.

If people really think that they can do science better than trained scientists, I invite them to apply this reasoning to other domains and have the next person they meet on the street do their root canals or wire their house for electricity. Those who participate in citizen science are praiseworthy, citizens in the full sense of the word. Nothing but good can come from the practice – except for the demagogic triumphalism of those journalists whose self-satisfied ignorance vitiates every hard-won gain achieved by the scientist/layperson partnerships.

It’s a natural human reaction to ridicule what one fears and/or doesn’t understand, though adults are supposed to mature beyond this juvenile tendency. The question then becomes why science, whose record is far better than that of just about any other human endeavor, has become a bugaboo rather than a vision and an integral part of this culture. It’s a question well worth remembering when all the GOP presidential candidates fall all over themselves to deny evolution – and one of them might lead what is still struggling to remain the most powerful country on this planet.

[Click on this image to see legible larger version]

Coda: The news that CERN’s OPERA project recorded anomalous results of neutrino speeds got its share of “Roll over, Einstein” smartass quotes although, thankfully, the hype didn’t reach the proportions of NASA’s “arsenic” bacteria. Neutrinos are literally the changelings of the particle clan but the claim is far from proven and the paper has still not been peer-reviewed.

If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. What it will do is place relativity in an even larger frame, as Eisteinian theory did to its Newtonian counterpart. It may also (finally!) give us a way to experimentally test string theory… and, just maybe, open the path to creating a fast information transmitter like the Hainish ansible, proving that “soft” SF writers like Le Guin may be better predictors of the future than the sciency practitioners of “hard” SF.

Images: 1st, Double Star by Chesley Bonestell (used as a Life cover in 1954); 2nd, a schematic of a protein structure; 3rd, Neutrinos by ever-sharp xkcd.

46 Responses to “High Frontiers and Cheap Snarks”

  1. Caliban says:

    I have some thoughts on protein folding etc, but that will have to wait.

    As far as the tachyonic neutrinos, I think they did this right. The experimentalists, more or less, publicly scratched their heads and said, “Well, we know this doesn’t make sense, but we can’t find where we went wrong, so we’re announcing this to see if anyone can replicate our results.” This kind of (reasonable) humility is a smart tactic: they’ll get priority credit if it turns out to be true, but if it is not verified, they won’t look like fools.

    I’ve only skimmed news accounts (and we know how reliable those are) but probably the most significant question is whether or not their timing is correct.

    I should note that there have been experiments that have implied neutrinos have an imaginary mass (i.e., sqrt(-1)) which is exactly what you’d expect from a faster-than-light particle. Most people chalked this up to inadequate modeling of complicated molecular physics, and I had thought this had gone away. But maybe not… If any particle turns out to be tachyonic, the neutrino would be top of the suspect list.

  2. Athena says:

    Indeed, I recall reading about the MINOS results, though their margin of error was much higher. I agree that the CERN people did this exactly right. It’s the usual media trumpetings that set my teeth on edge.

    If this shifts the goalposts, I’ll be delighted — and start dreaming of ansibles for real.

  3. Zarpaulus says:

    I’m in the “math error” camp and very glad the CERN scientists requested independent confirmation. Not that the media won’t crucify them if they’re proven wrong.

    Probably going to be related to how neutrinos rarely interact with matter while light slows down when passing through a medium such as air.

  4. [...] this comment from a new Athena Andreadis post is quite interesting: If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. [...]

  5. Athena says:

    Martin Robbins, the Guardian science blogger, was one of the few who got the angle right. Some of the tweets he quotes are very funny, though.

  6. Dylan Fox says:

    I’ve been thinking about the current trend of anti-intellectualism that seems to be growing stronger. My current theory is something along the lines that science is just plain hard. It takes years of study, of failure, of donkey work, of understanding, of listening, of hope over experience. And it also takes a lot of trust in other people (no progress is the result of only one individual, after all, and who wants to be lost in a sea of ‘contributors’?) and a faith that you can rebuild your world view if it gets broken. It’s pulling on all the things that humans find most difficult.

    It’s far easier to try and pull the achievements down then pull yourself up. It’s far easier to devalue something then try and surpass it. So instead we get told, ‘you don’t have to do all the hard stuff, because look! It’s pointless! It’s worthless! Don’t bother trying!’

    Or, as Bob Dylan once put it:
    Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
    Cares not to come up any higher
    But rather get you down in the hole
    That he’s in”
    (It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/its-alright-ma-im-only-bleeding)

    A more-than-slightly more bleak assessment that yours, Athena… Maybe it’s just that ignorance is easier to sell than understanding. Is that better or worse?

  7. Athena says:

    It’s the nyah nyah attitude that gets me, Dylan — the “Hey, look, Ma, no pollysyllables!” which feeds into the “You can do whatever you want without effort, if only you get touched by stardust” delusion.

  8. Walden2 says:

    If another intelligence were trying to get our attention, might not playing with some fundamental forces of physics be one way? It’s still a cool idea, regardless. :^) Perhaps we all better read Einstein’s Bridge.

  9. Athena says:

    I’ve heard the novel is clunky with plot twist clichés, infodumps and wet cement characters… so maybe not!

  10. Asakiyume says:

    The XKCD cartoon is funny; my brother could be that guy, for physics stuff (as you could be for the biology stuff–and you seem to do a pretty good job for the astronomy stuff, as well).

  11. Athena says:

    Isn’t it though? As for the domains — I was short two courses of graduating with a second degree in astrophysics. Between that and my lifelong interest in space exploration, I’ve kept up (with events, that is: my Hamiltonians and covariance matrices are terminally rusty).

  12. Craig says:

    As I understand it, CERN tossed out their “discovery” simply because they couldn’t explain it, and although they had high sigma confidence, they still were just unsure. So…it was presented not so much as “look what we’ve discovered” and more like “we’ve got this problem and we need help to see what the heck is going on.”

    In that sense, they did exactly the right thing.

    As for the “gamers” I think the whole point is that people near to a project can sometimes get “blocked” from seeing other options, just as writers hit a “writer’s block.” Someone starting from scratch can see other options, or at least ask “what if?” Even a non-scientist could do that, and maybe they jog the thinking enough to find a new route to a solution. Plus, collaboration is often stronger than the sum of its parts.

  13. Athena says:

    I believe we all agreed that the CERN scientists did the right thing.

    You must have noticed that I also praised crowdsourcing. What I did not like was the crowing of the media about them dense eggheads being “enlightened” by genius bystanders. Also, starting from true scratch (rather than an alternative but still informed point of departure) more often results in reinvention of the (cart)wheel rather than stunning revelations or insights.

    Writer’s block is a very different problem from being unable to solve a crystal structure. Trust me, I’ve been through both and know the difference.

  14. Eniac says:

    Athena,

    “In fact, with one exception that I can think of, proteins that have been unraveled into amino acid strings never re/fold at all”

    I was under the impression that most small globular proteins refold by themselves after being denatured, the most famous one being the ribonuclease studied by Anfinsen in the early 60s, who received the Nobel prize in Chemistry for this work in 1972.

    Otherwise, I agree with your assessment of what can be achieved by crowdsourcing and your dislike of the hype associated with it.

  15. Athena says:

    That’s precisely the exception I was referring to. I know this family intimately, since my RNA work depends on ensuring their absence. And small globular proteins underline the point of local folding.

  16. Doug M. says:

    I have to point out that a Hainish ansible would violate causality just as thoroughly as a faster-than-light drive.

    Doug M.

  17. Athena says:

    Not the way ansibles are depicted by Le Guin. The particles that transmitted the information would violate causality if they moved through conventional space rather than tunnel through a hidden/collapsed dimension (a premise in several variants of string theory). Also, I should have called them Cetian, not Hainish, because the physicist on whose work they were based was Shevek of Anarres.

  18. Doug M. says:

    No offense, but FTL communication violates causality. It doesn’t matter whether you invoke higher dimensions or not.

    Doug M.

  19. Athena says:

    It’s not FTL if the hidden dimensions create a shortcut. In any case, these are all hypothetical and will remain so until/unless we find a way to test string theory or other GUTs or TOEs.

  20. Walden2 says:

    More good links and quotes about the whole neutrino business here:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/moar-on-the-superfast-neutrinos/

    So how does “spooky action at a distance” – where one atom can behave exactly like another atom far, far away – work and why doesn’t it violate any laws of physics?

    Does the past actually exist in any form except as a concept and memories? If it is not real, then going FTL should not take you back in time because there will be no where to go to. Or am I just confusing myself more?

  21. Athena says:

    The past exists, Larry — you can see it in the process of change (second law of thermodynamics and all that…)

  22. Walden2 says:

    Journey to Alien Planets – on your iPad (which you can pretend is an ansible):

    http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/09/journey-to-the-exoplanets?WT.mc_id=0

  23. Rob Henry says:

    I’m not totally sure that the antiscientific trends that all assume a symptom of the pathology of the general public, don’t, in reality, have an internal origin. I’m thinking in particular of websites designed to counter creationists, whose real message should be that, yes, there are many difficult unsolved problems within the evolutionary theory, and its quite right to highlight them, but such problems are the heart and soul of science, and unless one such problem proves intractable, their existence can only be said to strengthen science. Instead it has been my impression that they convey the message that science provides no mechanism for further understanding, and is only interested in arguing in terms of tautologies. I fear that this infection has spread, and this would make a public backlash a reasonable response.

    PS, Is it really correct to call Ursula Le Guin a soft science fiction writer when its difficult to recall a single occasion when she chose plot convenience over scenarios whose every facet was easy to model in terms of known or speculated science. Her character development may have been strong, but surely her science was stronger still.

  24. Athena says:

    Well, first off I cannot think of any problems that evolutionary theory cannot address. Sites run by scientists most certainly say that there is more to be done, but also that science is the only path to real understanding of the world around us. Those who softpedal the last part are the so-called “accommodationists” (like Nisbet and Mooney) who insist that science and literal faith are compatible.

    Le Guin is routinely considered a “soft” SF writer because she never explains the science in her work (a very intelligent ploy, since “hard” SF generally dates very badly and is too often dead wrong). She’s more interested in the consequences of a speculative technology than its details. Personally, I don’t like ultra-hard SF because it routinely degenerates into boys and their toys.

  25. Rob Henry says:

    Oops, it was extremely injudicious of me to give an example where it could be argued that any fault in communication of science could be due to the impression that it was under attack. Better is the case of anthropogenic global warning, where proponents are keen to simultaneously educate the public to science and pretend that there is no doubt. Obviously doubt and testing are central to science, and if the public realised this they would see how un-mysterious and uninteresting claims made by, say, homeopathy, are in comparison.

  26. Rob Henry says:

    In reply to your query whether evolution can address all problems, Darwin’s version papered over a multitude of cracks, that were only really answered with the advent on modern synthesis in the 1950’s. This theory has been stunningly useful, and predictive, but, to me, the most obvious area for further work is that it has never been able to supply the complete conditions that would allow paths of continual improvement due to natural selection. If it could we would know how life on Earth could evolve without limit and Ray’s Tierra cannot. We would also know if complex multicellular life could evolve by itself, or if it can only do so by the agency of the transfer of genes from viruses whose faster evolution provide far higher potential to create and optimise new proteins. Thus there IS work to do, even if there are no KNOWN problems that evolutionary theory can’t address

  27. Athena says:

    Actually, I didn’t query — evolution can address all problems within its domain because it’s correct. Not specifically Darwin’s theory (which was as astonishingly radical as Einstein’s but obviously circumscribed by what Darwin’s age knew about biology) but the theory of evolution as it has become since then and will continue to become by increasing knowledge.

    Evolution does not lead to improvement, it’s not teleological. It simply leads to change, and whatever propagates is successful for that particular point in space and time. Life forms are actually jury-rigged and optimization is invariably a dead end. Complex life most certainly did not evolve by viral gene transfer — viruses are highly complex organisms that became retroactively simplified.

  28. Caliban says:

    I love LeGuin’s work (and have even taught it in a class on science and science fiction), but her discussion of the science behind the ansible in The Dispossessed is sheer gobbledygook, on the level of Star Trek. Wisely, and mercifully, she gets that part over very quickly. And, to be fair, nearly all SF makes leaps at some point–one can also critique Benford’s tachyons in Timescape (though it’s much closer to being seamless). Even as a scientist, I’m willing to give some leeway in the science in SF…

  29. Athena says:

    Calvin, agreed. “Wisely and mercifully” is very apt. Both you and I know that SF science is almost entirely metaphor or excuse for untrammeled extrapolations.

  30. Sue Lange says:

    Athena,

    I think it’s wonderful that science, especially science about something like neutrinos that you don’t read about every day, can spark excitement, even if the resulting discussion is misguided. To be honest a lot of the misguided headlines are put out by media that are very science-friendly. For instance: New Scientist. They constantly put up headlines that use terms like “…could very well mean the end of… as we know it.” And then you read the article and there’s no foregone conclusion about the end of anything at all. It’s mostly just findings such as what Cern came up with on the neutrino. Lots of research has to be done to verify conclusions; not everyone in the field agrees with the results, etc. Their headlines are just sensationalism, as bad as any the supermarket tabloids use.

    The problem science has to battle is its very nature. You can’t do science in a vacuum. You have to have others weigh in on any findings. Everyone has to be involved. You can’t just go up the mountain and come back with a shiny face and expect everyone to follow your ten laws for a happy life. Science by its nature gets done by committee. And every committee has its nutjobs. That’s its strength. Painful, yes, but necessary.

    So the media gets out of hand, they’re selling newspapers. They don’t care who gets maligned by their poorly researched conclusions. If I were God for a day, I would pass one law that states media outlets must revisit every story they print at least 6 months later and then publish the egg on their face when they see just how wrong they were.

  31. Rob Henry says:

    Wow, you used up such an interesting implicit assumption that I had to reply: is a mechanism that can consistently and continually provide improvement necessarily teleological?

    The modern synthesis contains no hint of purpose in its method, yet it is still clear what improvement means here – greater efficiency. That in itself is not so big a problem, but to this I would like to add the public perception, from ancient times to modern, demands that this increase is also accompanied by a complexification, in its idea of evolutionary progress. And I think that’s what you meant when you equated progress with teleology.

    The answer may be that life itself has a minimum necessary complexity, and even if the paths along which evolution took it were, on average, neutral as far as the above definition of progress is concerned, those whose lines become too simple would die out. Thus we may find no increase in the sophistication of the simplest organisms with time, whereas if we were just taking as our measure, the complexity of the most “advanced” organism in a system, this could be expected to increase over time, if only by “accident”. You could say “look there is no consistent movement that we could call progress in any evolutionary line, so how can you cry ‘progress’”, but I think that would be being a little pedantic.

    After saying all that, I bet I’m not the only one hoping for far more from an eventually more comprehensive theory. I hope that one day we will be able to give conditions under which complixification and increased efficiency go hand-in-hand. When that is achieved we will once more hear biologists confidently talk of good old fashioned evolutionary progress (we would also be able to let software write itself – something that we are very bad at doing currently).

  32. Athena says:

    Sue, if the media did what you suggest, it would be of great interest and benefit to everyone. Sensationalism, even by science-friendly media, really hurts science because the scientific approach is what I call “the asymptotic approach to reality/truth” — and soundbites don’t help.

  33. Rob Henry says:

    Before Darwin, both Buffon and Lamarck came up with teleological ideas of evolution. If our modern theory of evolution was based on one of them, and we saw lack of progress among certain groups of living organisms, we could say that was evidence against evolution. Darwin’s theory is not of that nature, and does not DEMAND progress, and that is why modern biologists are so keen to disassociate the two processes, but that does not mean that it can’t constantly deliver it under highly specific circumstances.

  34. Caliban says:

    Not surprisingly, today a number of papers on superluminal neutrinos popped up on the arxiv. Not all of these are crank papers; quite a few argue for either a mundane explanation (the equivalent of “phase” versus “group” velocity well known for electromagnetic waves) or that the result appears to contradict other kinds of constraints; if the c++ neutrino persisted, we’d have to tear down a lot of other theories and not just special relativity.

  35. Athena says:

    Progress and evolution are completely decoupled; people who use the complexity argument tend to forget the countless older lifeforms that have existed successfully for millions of year. Complexity is never co-linear with efficiency (they often work against each other) and a grand theory of life won’t be possible until/unless we find life elsewhere.

    It was easy to prove that Lamarck and Buffon were wrong — and had they been “adopted” as official theories (as they did in the USSR during Lysenkoism) they would in no way have “disproved” evolution. They would simply have become discredited as theories the moment people started doing real experiments.

  36. Rob Henry says:

    Athena, I suspect you and I differ far less over evolutionary theory than you think, but my aim was to use any scientific field and topic and show how it holds more mystery and wonder than most any other field of human endeavour. In that regard it is significant that, even though you give rather too much certainty when you state that “complexity is never co-linear with efficiency”, you immediately thereafter emphasise a means of testing.

    That the rules of our universe are consistent enough and simple enough for us to comprehend is a wonder in itself. Einstein once said that “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible”. The fact that science is so testable makes it visceral – part of everyone’s experience if they could just be shown it.

    I understand the anti-scientific feeling very well but, to me, this must be entirely due to poor communication and a polemic attitude to the arguments of outsiders.

  37. Athena says:

    Rob, I am well aware of the mystery and wonder of science. I wrote an essay about it that won a national award.

    Anti-scientific feeling is not due to “poor communication” (despite self-appointed PR gurus like Nisbet and Mooney harping on this) but in large part due to the unwillingness of (too) many people to question comfortable assumptions and think things through.

  38. Walden2 says:

    Victor Stenger on speedy neutrinos: did we cause God?

    By Jerry Coyne on Why Evolution is True for September 28, 2011:

    Over at Puffho, Victor Stenger ponders the evidence for faster-than-light neutrinos in a nice piece called “No cause to dispute Einstein.” Many of us know Victor as an eloquent atheist/physicist, but he also informs us us that he worked for thirty years on neutrinos. Clearly, he’s eminently qualified to pronounce on the CERN experiments suggesting that those particles can move faster than light.

    Stenger makes two points. First, like many physicists he’s wary of the results, mainly because they’re contradicted by earlier data on supernovas:

    However, a big fly in the ointment is the supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which sits just outside our galaxy 168,000 light-years from Earth. It was first seen by the naked eye on February 24, 1987. Three hours before the visible light reached Earth, a handful of neutrinos were detected in three independent underground detectors. If the CERN result is correct, they should have arrived in 1982. So, if I were a wagering man, I would bet the effect will go away because of some systematic error no one has yet been able to think of.

    Full article here:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/victor-stenger-on-speedy-neutrinos-did-we-cause-god/

  39. Athena says:

    Stenger’s article (here’s the primary link) glosses over several points. Although special relativity clearly allows tachyons, particles with regular mass cannot attain lightspeed from either direction. Furthermore, some manifestations of the weak force violate time symmetry which establishes a direction of time.

  40. Walden2 says:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27260/

    Faster-than-Light Neutrino Puzzle Claimed Solved by Special Relativity

    The relativistic motion of clocks on board GPS satellites exactly accounts for the superluminal effect, says physicist.

    kfc 10/14/2011

    It’s now been three weeks since the extraordinary news that neutrinos travelling between France and Italy had been clocked moving faster than light. The experiment, known as OPERA, found that the particles produced at CERN near Geneva arrived at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy some 60 nanoseconds earlier than the speed of light allows.

    The result has sent a ripple of excitement through the physics community. Since then, more than 80 papers have appeared on the arXiv attempting to debunk or explain the effect. It’s fair to say, however, that the general feeling is that the OPERA team must have overlooked something.

    Today, Ronald van Elburg at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands makes a convincing argument that he has found the error.

    First, let’s review the experiment, which is simple in concept: a measurement of distance and time.

    The distance is straightforward. The location of neutrino production at CERN is fairly easy to measure using GPS. The position of the Gran Sasso Laboratory is harder to pin down because it sits under a kilometre-high mountain. Nevertheless, the OPERA team says it has nailed the distance of 730 km to within 20 cm or so.

    The time of neutrino flight is harder to measure. The OPERA team says it can accurately gauge the instant when the neutrinos are created and the instant they are detected using clocks at each end.

    But the tricky part is keeping the clocks at either end exactly synchronised. The team does this using GPS satellites, which each broadcast a highly accurate time signal from orbit some 20,000km overhead. That introduces a number of extra complications which the team has to take into account, such as the time of travel of the GPS signals to the ground.

    But van Elburg says there is one effect that the OPERA team seems to have overlooked: the relativistic motion of the GPS clocks.

    It’s easy to think that the motion of the satellites is irrelevant. After all, the radio waves carrying the time signal must travel at the speed of light, regardless of the satellites’ speed.

    But there is an additional subtlety. Although the speed of light is does not depend on the the frame of reference, the time of flight does. In this case, there are two frames of reference: the experiment on the ground and the clocks in orbit. If these are moving relative to each other, then this needs to be factored in.

    So what is the satellites’ motion with respect to the OPERA experiment? These probes orbit from West to East in a plane inclined at 55 degrees to the equator. Significantly, that’s roughly in line with the neutrino flight path. Their relative motion is then easy to calculate.

    So from the point of view of a clock on board a GPS satellite, the positions of the neutrino source and detector are changing. “From the perspective of the clock, the detector is moving towards the source and consequently the distance travelled by the particles as observed from the clock is shorter,” says van Elburg.

    By this he means shorter than the distance measured in the reference frame on the ground.

    The OPERA team overlooks this because it thinks of the clocks as on the ground not in orbit.

    How big is this effect? Van Elburg calculates that it should cause the neutrinos to arrive 32 nanoseconds early. But this must be doubled because the same error occurs at each end of the experiment. So the total correction is 64 nanoseconds, almost exactly what the OPERA team observes.

    That’s impressive but it’s not to say the problem is done and dusted. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific process and this argument must hold its own under scrutiny from the community at large and the OPERA team in particular.

    If it stands up, this episode will be laden with irony. Far from breaking Einstein’s theory of relatively, the faster-than-light measurement will turn out to be another confirmation of it.

    Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.2685: Times Of Flight Between A Source And A Detector Observed From A GPS Satellite.

  41. Athena says:

    Surely the OPERA people must have taken this into account? It would be a rather basic omission if they didn’t.

  42. Walden2 says:

    Here is someone with access to the public media podium who does not “get” how or why science works the way it does and uses the whole FTL neutrino story to warp said events and twist things to promote his own agenda. Either that or he does get it but is twisting things for himself regardless.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/charles-krauthammer-gets-science-wrong/

  43. Athena says:

    Krauthammer conflates “taking things on faith, hence reluctant to question dogma” with “questioning a result because it goes against gazillions of experimental results.” In other words, he’s a demagogue — a relatively subtle one, but a demagogue nonetheless.

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