Thursday, December 08, 2011

Neutrinos and Snow

JB asks,

"What would be some of the real impacts (i.e. to the average human being) if neutrinos are really faster than light?"
Likely, very little. The standard misinterpretation of Bohr's principle of correspondence (which works well) is that each new theory has to have the theory it replaces as an approximation, that is, the new theory has to have results that reduce to the successful parts of the old theory it overthrows. If it turns out that neutrinos really do violate the theory of relativity, the theory of relativity will need to be replaced with something new that mathematically reduces back to the theory of relativity in all of the cases where it worked (that is, everywhere other than these bizarre never seen anywhere else effects). The theory of relativity similarly reduces to Newton's theory in virtually every single case we encounter on a day to day basis. So, practically, the effects would be nothing.

What about technologies? Unlikely. Neutrinos are strange little particles with no charge and virtually no mass. Neutrons in an atoms nucleus are a proton and an electron stuck together. but when you do that, certain properties don't quite work out, so physicists realized there had to be another component, and that's the (anti)neutrino. Just detecting their existence was worth a Nobel Prize. As such, it is unlikely that we'd be able to find ways to exploit this superluminal speed for computing or some other purpose.

That being said, it would likely mean a complete conceptual revolution in physics making LOTS of work for philosophers of physics. So, if you are married to such a person, you'd have to listen to discussions of the debates about this and how the people who disagree with this philosopher do not really understand the theory or what I said about it non-stop. So, for some people it could be a source of constant annoyance.

Kerry asks,
"Does it make scientific sense to say at this time of year, as many of us do, 'Man, if this was snow instead of rain we'd really be in for it!'? That is, is the difference between rainfall and snowfall merely a matter of temperature, or is the constellation of causes that produces rain actually quite different from the one that gives us snow, such that the buckets of rain coming down today wouldn't and couldn't be snow unless other factors besides temperature changed?"
The usual conversion factor is 10:1 for inches of rain to inches of snow. Does this calculation mean anything? When someone says, "this would have been four feet of snow had it been cold enough," what they are really saying is ""this would have been four feet of snow had it been cold enough...ALL ELSE BEING EQUAL." The problem as you point out, and the philosopher Nancy Cartwright has written extensively on this point, is that all else is never equal. The weather is the system we use as the prototypical chaotic system in which small changes to variables make large changes in effect. So, of course changing the temperature of the air would change how moist the air is, wind speeds, and any number of other factors that would have effects on how much snow is dropped.