Why the laity hope Einstein was wrong.

Although reputable news sources pointed out that most scientists think some more mundane explanation will be found for the too-early arrival of CERN-generated neutrinos in Gran Sasso, recently confirmed by a second round of experiments with much briefer pulse durations to exclude the most likely sources of systematic error, the take-home message for most non-scientists seems to have been “Einstein was wrong.  Things can go faster than light.”  Scientists trying to explain their skepticism often end up sounding closed-minded and arrogant.  People say, “Why don’t you take evidence of faster-than-light travel at face value, rather than saying it must be wrong because it disagrees with Einstein.”  The macho desire not to be bound by an arbitrary speed limit doubtless also helps explain why warp drives are such a staple of  science fiction.  At a recent dinner party, as my wife silently reminded me that a lecture on time dilation and Fitzgerald contraction would be inappropriate, the best I could come up with was an analogy to another branch of physics where where lay peoples’ intuition accords better with that of specialists:  I told them, without giving them any reason to believe me, that Einstein showed that faster-than-light travel would be about as far-reaching and disruptive in its consequences as an engine that required no fuel.
That was too crude an analogy. Certainly a fuelless engine, if it could be built, would be more disruptive in its practical consequences, whereas faster-than-light neutrinos could be accommodated, without creating any paradoxes of time travel, if there were a preferred reference frame within which neutrinos traveling through rock could go faster than light, while other particles, including neutrinos traveling though empty space, would behave in the usual Lorentz-invariant fashion supported by innumerable experiments and astronomical observations.
But it is wrong to blame mere populist distrust of authority for this disconnect between lay and expert opinion. Rather the fault lies with a failure of science education, leaving the public with a good intuition for Galilean relativity, but little understanding of how it has been superseded by special relativity.  So maybe, after dinner is over and my audience is no longer captive, I should retell the old story of cosmic ray-generated muons, who see the onrushing earth as having an atmosphere only a few feet thick, while terrestrial observers see the muons’ lifetime as having been extended manyfold by time dilation.
It is this difference in appreciation of special relativity that accounts for the fact that for most  people, faster-than-light travel seems far more plausible than time travel, whereas for experts, time travel, via closed timelike curves of general relativistic origin, is more plausible than faster-than-light travel in flat spacetime.

One Reply to “Why the laity hope Einstein was wrong.”

  1. Actually I don’t think the inclination to hope the OPERA experiment holds up to scrutiny is confined to non-physicists. We did a survey on the CQT blog (http://www.quantumblah.org) a little while ago, where we asked people 3 questions: Are they a physicist? Do they believe the results? Do the hope the results are correct?
    Obviously it was a survey done on a blog, so there are all kinds of self-selection caveats that apply, and we didn’t have a very large sample size. None the less I was struck by the results from people who identified themselves as physicists. While the responses from non-physicists were all over the place, all the physicists doubted the results, but all but one said they hoped the neutrino result would be confirmed.
    I’m not really surprised by this. I think physicists are always on the lookout for a new mystery.

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