sciencethat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Neutrinos and a flock of pigeons

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Have you heard the latest neutrino jokes?

Here’s one:


Knock, knock.

And here’s another:

“We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” said the bartender.

A neutrino walks into a bar.

Don’t get them? Well, in a Wall Street Journal column, physicist Michio Kaku put it this way:

Physicists fired a beam of neutrinos (exotic, ghost-like particles that can penetrate even the densest of materials) from Switzerland to Italy, over a distance of 454 miles. Much to their amazement, after analyzing 15,000 neutrinos, they found that they traveled faster than the speed of light—60 billionths of a second faster, to be precise. In a billionth of a second, a beam of light travels about one foot. So a difference of 60 feet was quite astonishing.

Cracking the light barrier violated the core of Einstein’s theory. According to relativity, as you approach the speed of light, time slows down, you get heavier, and you also get flatter (all of which have been measured in the lab). But if you go faster than light, then the impossible happens. Time goes backward. You are lighter than nothing, and you have negative width. Since this is ridiculous, you cannot go faster than light, said Einstein.

In other words, in neutrino jokes the punch line comes before the setup.

I happened to be thinking about this the other day when I looked up and noticed a flock of pigeons flying over the Italian Market. Not that pigeons have much — or anything, so far as I know — in common with neutrinos. No, what came to mind when I saw the pigeons was augury, the ancient practice of gauging the divine will by studying the flights of birds.

What a different way of regarding the world! And, before you brush the notion away on the presumption that our ancestors were all damn fools, remember that this was common practice among the Romans, those guys who built aqueducts and roads that are still in use today. People whose practical skills hold up very well against our own. Hardly damn fools.

To the extent that the flight of birds interests us nowadays, it has to do with the how and the why of it. We do not think there is any meaning to be discerned in it. Early man seems to have felt otherwise. But then, early man had a different, more direct connection with nature than we have. He seems to have drawn less of a distinction between himself and the rest of things.

We, on the other hand, have come to think of things in terms of quantities and parts. We weigh and measure things, take them apart, see how they work, and think that tells us all we need to know about them.

But is anything ever just the sum of its parts? Do the parts not work together in synergy, achieving thereby an effect none of the parts could independently?

In Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which I reviewed, Barnes buys into a notion of materialist determinism that I think may have some bearing on this. He says that “far from having a whip to crack, I am the very tip of the whip itself, and what is cracking me is a long and inevitable plait of genetic material which cannot be shrugged or fought off.” Later he quotes a “specialist in consciousness” who said on the radio that “these words coming out of this mouth at this moment, are not emanating from a little me in here, they are emanating from the entire universe just doing its stuff.”

I wrote in my review that the upshot of this was that we were all but end-points of chains of causation reaching back to the Big Bang and that upshot of that was that no viewpoint could be considered either right or wrong. Each just is.

But thinking this over recently, I realized I should have followed the chain in the other direction, back to its source. For if we have a sense of self, it must be because a sense of self is inherent in being, going back all the way to that Big Bang. And that brings to mind this, quoted in John Blofeld’s Taoism: “From the Tao all the myriad objects derive their being, their illusory separateness being wrought by the interplay of yin and yang.”

If this be so, it is not the sense of self that is illusory, but the sense of separateness. And if that is the case, early man’s failure to draw a sharp distinction between himself and the rest of the world may not be so strange after all.

Remember that the next time you notice a flock of pigeons.


Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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One Response to “Neutrinos and a flock of pigeons”

  1. I recently re-read Kaku’s Visions (1997) in which he makes predictions about 2000-2020. He’s suprisingly accurate. If theo-physics and the future of technology/civilization/science is your thing, check it out.

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