The recent news flash from Italy and Switzerland that Opera researchers had observed a neutrino particle exceeding the speed of light did not excite the world much. If true, though, this bit of information should totally change physics as we know it. The Huffington Post had several articles on this subject, including one by Lisa Randle, an expert in this field. I am not, but, fortunately enough, a colleague on my University of Hawaii campus, John Learned, has been at the early forefront of both the neutrino mass and velocity discoveries, and was quoted in the New York Times to say:
If the results of the Opera researchers turned out to be true, it could be the first hint that neutrinos can take a shortcut through space, through extra dimensions.
Huh? Extra dimensions? Time travel?
John has been educating me: about neutrino telescopes we someday might use to detect signals from aliens, or that advanced civilizations will most probably not be so gauche as to use microwave or optical signals -- they could well employ Cepheid variable stars as beacons, for the resultant neutrino signal will not decay through space. Wow, a real application of a neutrino, something that intrigues me, for I once worked on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the NASA Ames Research Center. My chapter 3 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity happens to have an optical solution for finding earth-like extrasolar planets.
So, anyway, Randle and Learned made me wonder about the miracle of our universe, where actual numbers become almost meaningless in contemplating everything there is. I've dealt with large numbers in a previous HuffPo: Piffle Squared. Ten to the first power is ten, and ten to the second power is 100. Ten to the 100th power is a googol, which is one followed by 100 zeroes, and the googolplex is one followed by a googol of zeros.
How large is this number? A one point font character is about 0.001 inch wide, something you can hardly see, and maybe can't. However, if you attempt to write a googolplex, that one point font zero, end on end, would stretch beyond the diameter of our observable Universe.
An equally daunting truth of our massive universe is that light, which travels at 186,000 miles per second, would take 100,000 years just to beam across our own Milky Way galaxy! Homo sapiens, us, had not even appeared yet on Planet Earth 100,000 years ago. And at last count, we might have 500 billion galaxies up there, and each of them has hundreds of billions of stars. So that makes us humans inconsequential, squared. But okay, my brain can process this information, and so should yours.
Further looking at all this in terms of our inconsequentialness, the mass in pounds of our globe is 1 followed by 25 zeroes. All living matter is guessed to weigh about one followed by 11 zeroes. Humans represent 0.33% of all living matter, which is a lot more than I thought. Just the bacteria in our ocean amount to 150 times human mass. So we Homo sapiens represent this infinitesimal amount of Planet Earth. As our sun in pounds is 4.4 times 1 followed by 34 zeroes, we are, approximately. .. well, almost nothing, and our sun is, relatively, even less, when compared to the mass of our universe, where there is something between 1 followed by 22 to 24 zeroes number of stars. Astrophysicists spend a lot of their time guessing. But, so far, I would hope for you, all the above kind of makes sense.
Here is the part that truly confounds. At one time our deep thinking scientists thought that everything could be represented by atoms: protons, neutrons and electrons. Call them baryonic matter. Then only recently (say a quarter century ago), it was determined that all this baryonic matter (you, me, bacteria, the stars, everything theoretically observable) only represents 4.6% of the Universe. Suddenly, we hear, there is dark energy, something we can't even detect, representing 72% of our universe, and dark matter, something we can't see, perhaps 23%. Doesn't quite add up to 100%, but who cares at this point, so let's toss in neutrinos, that elusive particle that supposedly now can exceed the speed of light, into that mix.
First the obvious. According to Einstein, energy equals mass times the speed of light times the speed of light, or E equals mc squared, the most famous equation of all time. How beautiful and simple and elegant and utterly counterintuitive, for the concept of energy and matter being related, and exactly by the speed of light squared, is not logical. There is something about space, time, energy and matter that just does not make any sense to me.
Albert Einstein, born in Germany, was not an extraordinary child, but when 15 or 16 passed on to his mother's brother (his weekly tutor, an uncle) a paper entitled "The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields." Aether, or ether, from Einstein? But he failed in his first attempt to gain entrance into a university, then later barely sneaking out with a PhD at the age of 26 from the University of Zurich, he got his first real job as an assistant examiner in a patent office. About a decade later he first wrote on his general theory of relativity, became an academic superstar and won a Nobel Prize at the age of 41. In 1939 at the age of 60 he signed that game-changing letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which resulted in the Atomic Bomb, something he later admitted was the one great mistake he ever made, for mankind subsequently stumbled to stage of being a push of a button away from doomsday during the Cold War.
Enough about history, as now comes the really confusing part: neutrinos (mean small neutral ones in Italian and are kind of like electrons, but with no electrical charge). First, there are various types, and second, there are anti-neutrinos. Don't ask. Sixty five billion of them, mostly from our Sun (neutrinos are produced in many ways, but ours mostly come from the fusion process of hydrogen being converted into sunshine), pass through (they go right through, like a bullet going through fog) each square centimeter of our planet each second.
The first neutrino shoe to drop was officially announced last year when conclusive evidence was found that neutrinos have mass. Actually, my mentor on this subject, John Learned, wrote on this subject almost a dozen years ago. Anyway, if matter reaches the speed of light (which has no mass), according to Einstein, that mass becomes infinite! So how can neutrinos reach, and, I guess now, even exceed, the speed of light?
You should be totally confused by now, but just accept the fact that the laws of physics are changing. Yes, there are terrorists, our society will no doubt fall into another economic recession, if not depression, and yet another potential doomsday might well be around the corner. However, in the totality of what is our Dark Universe, what is truly important? Perhaps for us recent intruders* into this space-time-energy-mass warp, Homo sapiens, will all this eclectic research lead to saving Planet Earth and Humanity in time? And, for 92% (if was 98% half a century ago) of Americans, does this change the nature of God, and will their afterlife somehow be affected? But that was Chapter 5 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity.