Speed of neutrinos: is scientific progress faster than its shadow?

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Last September, a discovery hit the scientific world and its news was rapidly spread throughout the media of the entire globe. In the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy, a scientific team observed some elementary particles called “neutrinos”[1] sent from the particle accelerator of CERN, a laboratory close to Geneva and situated almost 730 km away[2]. The “Opera” experiment, which has unfolded over a period of more than 3 years, consisted of studying the propagation of these particles as well as measuring their speed to the order of nanoseconds[3]. Once the results were verified and re-verified and the experiment repeated from the beginning, the scientists had to admit the reality of the facts as they were shown: these particles travelled at a speed which was a little greater than the speed of light[4]. If correct, this discovery would overthrow the fundamental laws of physics such as the law of relativity as put forward by Einstein, which defined the speed of light as an insuperable, universal constant. The announcement of this discovery immediately fell prey to the rapacious press who tried to outdo each other in looking for a “scientific” scoop: “Has the neutrino finished off Einstein?” “Einstein contradicted!” “Einstein is busted!” And so it goes on... This vision of science where different theories are essentially competitive and ready to eliminate each other like predators in a permanently mortal struggle is typical of bourgeois ideology and fundamentally inherent to its mode of social functioning. This discovery effectively implies (if it is proved to be correct, which previous similar discoveries have proved not to be) the calling into question of the very basis of modern physics. If correct, it is a discovery whose consequences are presently unimaginable. We could happily hazard a guess about developing theories on what that would mean for our perception of the universe, but such a totally empirical approach would take us into the realms of science-fiction.

Such is not our aim. What appears immediately and in a very clear manner, and what all capitalist propaganda strives to distort and obliterate, is that in any scientific approach, no theory is carved in stone in a permanent and incontestable manner. The perception of scientific reality is eminently historical and in a state of constant evolution. Such a discovery would oblige us to review our previous conceptions and to confront them with this new representation of reality. It’s in this way that the overcoming of past ideas leads us to new questions and to new scientific progress and techniques. And this progress, in its turn, allows us to go beyond certain problematics and bring in new elements without however denying the contributions of those preceding. It is this dialectical character of evolution which makes each stage, each progression (as small as it may be), absolutely necessary as a link in the chain in our process of evolution.

This vision, which appears to be the basis of all honest scientific work, does not however form part of the dominant ideology. At least that’s what one finds when one looks at the facts in front of us: at the time when it is perfectly capable of sending a robotised engine to explore the surface of the planet Mars, the economic specialists of capitalism are almost incapable of foreseeing the subsequent development of our economy for a few days into the future... and, as a consequence of that, we are incapable of supplying the most basic needs of a growing part of the world population! This is for one simple reason: according to the ideology of the dominant class (capitalist ideology), the present system with its democratic ideal based on the production of surplus value, on rivalry and on competition between individuals, is fundamentally the system which corresponds best to the character of the human species and human nature, past, present and future. The everlasting nature of capitalism itself is seen as a real and incontestable absolute. In this view the political ideal of this system, capitalist democracy, is the sole perspective towards which humanity could evolve. Any other perspective is automatically labelled “utopian”, even dangerous, and for good reason! If the greater mass of humanity, the exploited class, in understanding that the scholarly equations of the economic specialists have long since ceased to be a motor for human progress; if today these calculations of charlatans were denounced as being the basis for the extortion of surplus-value which justifies the immense privileges which a minority of exploiters enjoy; if in order to save ourselves, we aim to create a world without states where productive activity is organised exclusively in relation to human needs and with respect to natural resources ; then, effectively, the capitalist class would be completely out of date; its privileges and its ideology would be profoundly called into question. In a society founded on solidarity and social progress, the role and the place of science would be completely different to those that we’ve know so far.

Make no mistake: the scientific world does not escape capitalism’s laws and its reactionary ideology. The milieu of scientific research is impregnated with a spirit of ferocious and permanent rivalry. Most of the time, researchers are in competition one with the others, and cooperation between different teams rapidly reach their limits. The races to publish, the quest for individual prestige, social and financial recognition are so many fetters which are considerable handicaps for humanity in its march towards consciousness and progress[5].

Today, no scientific discovery, as brilliant as it is, could bring humanity out of the obscure prehistory in which capitalism entraps it up to its last breath. The greatest experiment standing in front of us now is nothing other than the profound transformation of society which alone can bring humanity into its real history.

Maxime 23/10/11


[1] It’s the smallest elementary particle known to this day and rarely interacts with other matter. It results from a collision between two protons, elements which constitute the nucleus of atoms. Neutrinos oscillate between their three “flavours”.

[2] This distance represents the most direct trajectory between the CERN accelerator and the detectors of Gran Sasso. The line of the neutrinos thus travels through the earth’s crust.

[3] One nanosecond equals a billionth of a second.

[4] 20 parts per million (ppm) above it in fact.

[5] The weight of capitalism in holding back scientific research is the main element here but there have been some chinks of light in unofficial cooperation. One such case was the accidental discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) by Penzias and Wilson working for Bell Labs in 1964. This discovery confirmed the theory of the “Big Bang” explosion of the universe against the neo-Newtonian “Steady State” theory and was a major advance for cosmology. Though there was ferocious competition to find this evidence and great secrecy surrounding research, not least from Princeton University which was leading research into the question, there was a great deal of unofficial, direct cooperation from lower level scientists at Princeton with Penzias and Wilson who definitely helped to put the latter on the right track. The academic elite at Princeton were furious that a couple of jobbing scientists had made such a leap.

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