Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Didn't make Page 1

Isaac Newton as interpreted by William Blake

Oh, by the way, it's not as major as Nicole Hilton's legal troubles or John Edwards' hair stylist. But somebody may have just discovered that the whole universe works differently than we thought. As explained by George Musser in Hints of a breakdown of relativity theory? Sciam Observations blog 08/22/07:

The MAGIC gamma-ray telescope team has just released an eye-popping preprint (following up earlier work) describing what might be the first observational hint of quantum gravity. What they've seen is that higher-energy gamma rays appear to travel through space a little bit slower than lower-energy ones, contrary to one of the postulates underlying Einstein's special theory of relativity - namely, that radiation travels through the vacuum at the same speed no matter what. ...

The team ruled out the most obvious conventional effect, but will have to do more to prove that new physics is at work - this is one of those "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" situations. But if the high-energy gammas really did lose the cosmic race, we're talking Big Discovery. It could be a way to constrain string theory, loop quantum gravity, and other bleeding-edge theories.
Incidentally, if this turned out to be the case, it doesn't mean that Einstein's theory of relativity is wrong, any more than relativity meant that Isaac Newton's theory of gravity was wrong. (Newton's theological theories haven't been quite so enduring.) Gravity still works the way Newton figured out it did. Although Pete Seeger reportedly keeps a sign posted somewhere around his house saying "gravity is just a theory", mocking the fundamentalist "evolution is just a theory" line. Technically, gravity is "just a theory". But, as I can testify from having suffered a broken leg in a fall a couple of years ago, gravity works, "just a theory" or not.

The telescopes of Einstein's day were far more powerful than anything Newton had available. So he was able to demonstrate that light was affected by gravity and offer an improved theory of physics. It more or less made Newtonian physics a subset of the new physics. This news item is also something produced by a measuring system that is state-of-the-art circa 2007.

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