The famous Hubble Deep Field. Image credit NASA/JPL
Each one of those smudges is a galaxy, like our Milky Way, containing between 200 billion and 500 billion stars, like our Sun. Perhaps ten percent of those stars may have planets. And maybe, just maybe, 0.01% of those planets (which works out to about a million worlds) may harbor intelligent life. The Universe is a place with more possibilities than any human can imagine.
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey,
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written content only
For centuries, humans have looked to the night skies and seen a vast expanse that for the most part never changes. Oh, you’ll see meteorites, comets, and the occasional supernova, but by and large, the night sky never changes. The stars that make up the familiar constellations Orion the Hunter and the two Dippers have always been there, and will likely still be recognizable touchstones in the sky when the human species fades away.
The unchanging nature of the universe extends itself to the science of physics, the root of which is the theory of relativity, authored by Albert Einstein in 1905. Einstein is widely acknowledged as the greatest scientific mind humanity has ever produced. His theory has been poked and prodded at ever since, but despite all the challenges, it remains the cornerstone of our understanding of the universe.
I won’t take the space to explain all the ramifications of Relativity Theory, but one of its basic tenets is the assertion that it is impossible for a material object to travel faster than the speed of light. And that speed, 186,000 miles per second, has been the constant by which all things in the universe have been measured and the universe itself understood.
In March of this year, scientists working at the CERN lab near Geneva, Switzerland conducted an experiment where they sent a burst of particles called neutrinos on a journey of some 730 kilometers to another lab near L’Aquila, Italy. What the original purpose of the experiment was hasn’t been discussed but the results have shaken the physics community to its very foundations.
If the speed of light is an unchangeable constant, then the arrival of a particle at a certain point should be predictable. Imagine the shock of those physicists when the neutrinos arrived about 60 nanoseconds earlier than expected. This was stunning. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second, and only in particle physics could one say that 60 billionths of something is substantial. Multiplied out, that meant that the neutrinos were rocketing along at roughly 6,000 meters per second faster than the speed of light. Doing the conversion, that means they were going 13,421.5 miles per hour faster than the speed of light, the figure which was thought to be the cosmic speed limit.
The experiment was repeated in September with the same results.
The reaction was immediate and vociferous. The results were immediately challenged, questioning every aspect of the experiment, even the fact that gravitational fields in Spain and Switzerland were minutely different and therefore may have affected the speed of the two clocks that timed the release of neutrinos and their subsequent arrival. But mainly what was detectable was a real fear that if the results were true, that it was possible for objects to exceed the speed of light, then every single fact, every single theory and assumption in physics, from the micro of the subatomic to the macro of the entire universe would have to be changed.
Our understandings of life itself would be completely altered.
It’s hard to overestimate what this would mean to the scientific community. And to us, as well. Normally what goes on within such esoteric fields of endeavor are so far above our level of our understanding as to be completely incomprehensible. But so much of everything we take for granted in our lives, from a microwave oven to a GPS works because the underlying physics is understood. To have all that assumed knowledge, some of which has been around for a couple centuries, turned on its ear would throw scientific knowledge in to chaos. All of a sudden, a universe whose rules made sense would now become enigma. It would be as if we went to sleep and woke up to find that everyone else was suddenly speaking Portuguese. What we thought we knew and understood became alien overnight.
Dr. Michio Kaku is a theoretical physicist who has become a ubiquitous face on the science channels in the past few years. His fame is perhaps helped by the fact that he has the greatest head of hair of any scientist since Einstein. Far more likely though, for many, he has become the Carl Sagan of this generation, making the science of the universe something we can all understand a little clearer. While not yet willing to say no to the results of the experiment just yet, he still believes that further exploration into the experiment itself will eventually reveal a flaw in the calculations. As he pointed out, Einstein said that just as an object ages slower as it gets closer to the speed of light, an object going beyond that limit would be, like a neutrino, pretty much without any mass and may even age in reverse. That's probably why Captain Kirk still got all the pretty girls. Einstein was convinced that faster than light, or FTL travel, was physically and scientifically impossible. And that's been the default position of scientists ever since, not because of universal adoration for the good Doctor, but because in all these years, nobody's ever been able to prove anything different.
The final word on this won’t be reached for some time, years perhaps. And that’s a good thing. Rigorous reexamination is fundamental to science and keeps things neat and orderly. There is a saying, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
Which is why it is still the final frontier.