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Watch That Speed Limit

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It was big news last fall. Not just nationally or internationally but for the universe.

The eminent scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that they had recorded a minute particle -- a neutrino -- traveling faster than light. Which is impossible according to Einstein and everything else we've learned about the universe, theoretically and experimentally, over the past century.

This wasn't just news, it was a revolution in man's knowledge, overturning the basis of everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe. The physicists at the giant particle accelerator near Geneva reported that the neutrinos they'd fired through the Alps had shown up at their destination in Italy 60 billionths of a second faster than light would have done over the same distance.

It was as if a respected institute of mathematics had announced that 2 plus 2 doesn't quite equal 4 after all.

Physicists around the world betrayed some skepticism about the report, but physics buffs went ga-ga. Assorted scientists, magazine editors and amateur particle-watchers around the globe were captivated by the news.

What did it mean? Beats me all to pieces. But the news got the guys in lab coats all excited.

If the speed of light wasn't the max -- and Herr Doktor Einstein was wrong -- what would that do to the laws of the universe, which had suddenly been repealed? What could mankind do with this information? Was time travel possible? Fantastic voyages of speculation were launched that would make your average sci-fi story sound unimaginative.

The news came over the AP wire last Wednesday.

Researchers at CERN say they might have, well, after further review, it seems that there could have been, um, something of a teeny-tiny boo-boo of a mistake. A spokesman for CERN told the AP that scientists had "found a problem" with the stop-watch, or whatever they use to measure the speed of the neutrinos.

Other reports in Science magazine blamed a bad connection in a fiber optic cable. More experiments are, as you can guess, planned.

Once again, Einstein has been confirmed by an experiment that originally contradicted him. It was a familiar pattern even in his lifetime: Einstein would be "proved" wrong by the experimental evidence, whereupon he would dismiss the results of the experiment as impossible, as any genius could plainly see.

Sure enough, it would be the experiment that proved wrong, not Einstein. The human mind really is something, or at least Einstein's was.

How could he have been so sure about his theories? Because all through those long, lonely days at his day job in the patent office, he'd thought, he'd imagined, he'd visualized some things through. Thought Experiments, he called his mental gymnastics. And they proved more reliable than a lot of the field work with telescopes and mirrors and radio discs and who knows what else.

Young Einstein's days may have been long and lonely, but they were anything but empty. The young clerk who imagined himself some kind of physicist, was surrounded by his own ideas, thoughts, theories ... all aswirl in his ever-active mind, waiting for him to use them to make a universe out of all this seeming chaos.

He let there be light at a constant speed in a sea of relativity, and all the pieces of his universal theory fell into dazzling place. And he pronounced it good.

All he'd needed was his own reason and imagination and daring -- and an unshakable faith that man could understand the whole Creation. If he would just think its mysteries through. Till all would be revealed. As he put it, "The Lord God may be cunning, but he's not malicious." If the Creator's works are mysterious, they are not impenetrable. Day by day uttereth speech, sang the Psalmist, and night unto night showeth knowledge. The answers are out there; they just wait to be found, and Herr Einstein would find them. Again and again.

Now another experiment has proven faulty, not Einstein. What a pity in its way. The news from Geneva had opened so many possibilities, including a lot for humor. The discovery that a neutrino could theoretically arrive at one place before it had left another inspired my nomination for Joke of the Year 2011:

"Get out of here," says the bartender. "We don't serve no faster-than-light neutrinos here!"

A neutrino walks into a bar.

Now it all turns out to have been a loose connection or something -- an alternator on the blink, a gizmo on the wrong setting, a cable not quite plugged in. Aw shucks. What a letdown.

Even more satisfying than all the neutrino jokes circulating among members of scientific faculties around the world was the sight of all those physicists genuinely excited about a scientific discovery. Even if, as it turns out, the discovery wasn't genuine. Ah, well, back to the particle accelerator.

Homo Faber, Man the Toolmaker, strikes again. What do you suppose is Latin for Man the Ever Gullible?

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