Various & Sundry 9/23/11

What’s up? Well:

* For those folks still interested in the follow-up to the Redshirts auction will be happy to know that I met with the library folks today and they are very happy about everything that’s happened, and that they are making plans on how to put that money to its best use for the library — i.e., they’re not going to go out and spend it on gum or anything. More details as they happen, but in general, everything’s groovy over here.

* People are asking me what I think of the suggestion of sub-atomic particles going faster than light. One, it would be really interesting if it were true, since it would basically upend our model of how the universe works; Two, I suspect strongly that it’s an error somewhere along the chain of observation and we’ll find that out sooner rather than later; Three, that if that’s not how it plays out, this particular observation will have to be replicated a few dozen times before people are comfortable throwing a century’s worth of physics into the “obsolete” bin. Even the people publishing it is all “please check this for us, will you?” Which is what scientists do.

If you want to take a look at the paper that describes all this itself, it’s here. I looked at it and was reminded that my ability to understand it was only slightly better than that of an average monkey, so I will rely on actual scientists to tell me if it holds up. If it does, well. Exciting times. Physicist Brian Cox talks about it here (this is an audio file).

* I’ve also been asked for comments about the Republican presidential candidate debates. The short answer here is that I don’t have many, since I haven’t been watching them, on account that I don’t really want a shoe in my TV. I’ve been reading transcripts and follow-up commentary, none of which convinces me that any of these fellows (and one lady) will be coming remotely close to getting my vote next year. I heard about the booing of the gay soldier from the floor at the debate, but there’s some question of whether it’s the work of more than a couple of idiots, so I’m choosing not to get too worked up about that.

All of it is a reminder that 2012 is likely to be an especially aggravating election year; I’m happy not to devote too much of my attention to the election just yet.

* What I am devoting my attention to: Checking the copy edit of Redshirts. I’m happy to say that generally speaking it’s been well done, and the copy editor in question here is making me look like I’m more grammatically ept than I actually am. Which is always a positive. The CE and I have a small difference in opinion about commas (not necessarily relating to the Oxford comma, incidentally), which I will win because I get to STET. But it really is a small difference of opinion and in the main this is a good copy edit, and I’m happy to have it. If you get a final copy of the book and there’s a screw-up, blame it on me, not the copy editor.

As a small aside to this, I will note that that I have to be careful when typing out the title of the new book, since the omission of a single letter changes it from “redshirts” to a vulgar term for “bloody stool.” And I’ve unintentionally omitted that letter a couple of times already. Diligence, always diligence.

43 Comments on “Various & Sundry 9/23/11”

  1. Re: The booing. It may have been by only a few individuals, but there’s also the fact that none of the candidates has indicated that there was anything wrong with it. You could argue that, at the time, the candidates may or may not have heard the boos, but since this has since received such major coverage and still no one has issued a statement, you could also make a case for tacit approval.

    I am eagerly awaiting your next bloody stool-themed thriller.

  2. John, would you mind giving some info about how you went about getting your softcover editions of Redshirts made? I have a vested interest in asking: I’ve done similar before with hardcovers and it’s always been a huge pain.

  3. As far as politics goes, I’d be more interested in your thoughts about John Boehner and his political future – seeing as he’s your Representative (correct me if I’m mistaken) . I keep reading in various quarters that he’s close to toast and unable to keep his side united, but I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking, bashing him, or actually grains of truth.

  4. Your comment about understanding it only slightly better than an average monkey reminds me of one of my many favorite lines from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, when Ford said, “You know what your trouble is Arthur? You’ve got as much grasp of multi-temporal causality as a concussed bee.” That’s about how I felt after listening to the audiobook version of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory. I had a slightly better understanding, but felt slightly dazed.

  5. @7 Advanced physics has that effect on people.

    It’s such a fascinating topic, but I am glad that the simple formulations of Newton’s Laws is more than enough to get through day to day life.

  6. Carina:
    Your comment about Newton’s laws being enough for daily life brings up another good point. People are saying we’ll have to throw relativity out the window if this is true, but it seems to me that it’s more likely that it would just be a boundary for where relativity’s useful, just like relativistic effects mark the boundary for where Newton’s laws are useful, and quantum effects are a boundary for where Bohr’s model is useful.

  7. Maybe get one of those type-it-for-me apps like TextExpander or Breevy so that when you type red[poops], it automatically changes it to Redshirts, or even Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas.

    Of course this can be a problem if you actually want to type red[poops].

  8. @Scalzi, #4:

    I stand corrected. Thank you!

    @PopsicleMud, #10:

    Maybe it’s just me not knowing enough about physics, but I don’t entirely see what the big deal is. We know that relativity and quantum theory are incompatible; isn’t that what the search for quantum gravity or a grand unified theory is all about? It seems to me like this is just another example of the subatomic world being really weird. Granted, it’s being really weird in a very cool and somewhat shocking way, but I don’t entirely understand why that would lead to us having to completely abandon relativity. Maybe it just needs some refinement.

  9. Came here to complain about
    As a small aside to this, I will not that that I have to be careful when typing out the title of the new book, since the omission of a single letter changes it from “redshirts” to a vulgar term for “bloody stool.” And I’ve unintentionally omitted that letter a couple of times already. Diligence, always diligence.

    Only to see that you have already corrected it. sigh. So much for typo humor.

  10. What’s wrong with gum? I like gum! Wouldn’t it be absolutely awesome if your library had complimentary sticks of gum?

    …just imagine: gum in the computers, gum in the carpet, gum in the books… it’s like a patron-created scratch-n-sniff experience!

  11. TomG at 5:

    John Boehner is in trouble because he’s a socialist. That’s what I hear, anyway.

    (Of course, that’s from some of the same people who think Obama is a socialist, so there you go.)

  12. Maybe get one of those type-it-for-me apps like TextExpander or Breevy so that when you type red[poops], it automatically changes it to Redshirts, or even Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas.

    Don’t most word processors already have similar functionality? I ‘member when one of my 2Lts snuck in and set the boss’s Word autocorrect to expand “and” to “and, what the hell,” … took him a while to figur eit out.

  13. John, I know it’s popular and humorous, but the backformation ‘ept’ (type “lost positive,” from ‘inept’) is unnecessary. The positive has not been lost; it’s ‘apt’.

  14. Regarding the European neutrinos going FTL. Did anyone see numbers on how much faster than light they went? Not very much.

    It says the beam when 450 miles, which should have taken about 0.00242 seconds at speed of light (using 186000 mps). And they are saying that these particles actually showed up 60 nanoseconds faster. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second. So 60 = .00000006 seconds faster.

    So, allowing for gross rounding errors, the beam actually took 0.002420940 seconds instead of 002420000 seconds.

    They are saying that was within their margin of error. For measuring particles flying 450 miles at light speed across Europe through the earth. So all this hype is based upon our belief that their margin of error is so tiny in their experiments that this measurement is accurate.

    Two key observations from that:
    1) Occam’s razor called. He wants his more plausible hypothesis back.
    2) Even if true, being able to exceed FTL by 0.0025% doesn’t really open the flood gates on interstellar travel.

  15. @Matthew in Austin

    I think you have an error or 2 there.

    First I think the difference is 0.25%, not 0.0025%

    Second I have read that their margin of error was 10 ns–about 1/6 their measurement. (The did say that there had been a previous similar finding but their speed difference /was/ withing the MOE.)

    That said, if you’re going to go faster than light, why only 0.25%?

    And certainly CERN is asking for a razor–it’s just they’ve run out of ideas of what they’ve missed and are asking others to check their work.

    Just because there is a mistake doesn’t mean that it’s an easy to find one.

    The difference we’re looking at is about 18 meters over the travel time.

  16. Hmmm…”unintentionally omitted that letter….” Have you unintentionally omitted any other letters in the word? Or does your unconscious only permit elisions that lead to snickerable typos?

  17. Re: commas: Your post reminds of the enjoyable half hour I spent one day in the student newspaper office at Reedley college listening to the newspaper advisor and one of the other student journalists argue about the placement of a comma in a poem the student had written. No, really. It was fun to listen to.

  18. Yeah, I double checked the ,0025% thing.

    Take 450 miles /186000 miles per second and get 0.0024 seconds. That is 24000 nanoseconds. They said the Speedy Gonzalez neutrinos went 60 nanoseconds faster. So 23940 nanoseconds. 24000/23940 = 1.0025 (or 0.0025 % faster).

    But I agree with you other point that there is nothing wrong with them publishing and asking for help. Of course that is the right thing for the scientists to do in a situation like this. My point was more that all the tech nerds are going bonkers about it, and I don’t think it is likely that there is anything earth shattering really going on. Certainly not in the literal sense, I hope.

  19. I’m trying to remember an experiment: The headline was something like ‘Light travels Faster than Light.’
    IIRC the experimenters took parallel plates and found that when the plates were charged shining a
    light through the gap caused the light to travel faster than light. By an amount that was so small that
    almost nobody really cared. Seems the electric field was preventing the normal quantum fluctuation
    of particles popping into and out of existence.
    My take was that the speed of light in a standard vacuum is lower than the speed of light in a “real”
    vacuum-that the stated value of c is actually lower than its real value.
    Light speed varies lots more depending on what it’s traveling in than neutrino speed does, so, shrug, I

  20. Matthew:

    Good points.

    It sounds like the physicists who did the study are perfectly willing to have others look at and try to replicate their work and/or peer review to account for any experimental error that could expand the margin of error and account for the 60ns, In effect, they’re trying to address your first observation. Occam’s razor will most likely win out.

    About your second observation: You’re right that such a small margin over light speed doesn’t get us to Alpha Centauri in a reasonable amount of time, especially since even accelerating a useful amount of mass to anywhere near light speed would take more energy than is even remotely practical. Here’s some blue-sky thinking, though: what if (and it’s a big if) the measurements turn out to be accurate? They could open the door for “superluminal physics” experiments and theories which could, in turn, lead to more useful FTL applications. It’s a long shot, but fun to contemplate.

  21. John Scalzi@ #4:
    Actually Huntsman spoke about it directly, and others had spokespeople do so.

    Um, “unfortunate” is when your microphone makes farty-feedback noises every time you open your mouth. Honestly, it was such a piss-weak response I wish they’d said nothing at all; and it takes roughly zero imagination to picture the much stronger response if this had happened at an Obama town hall.

  22. “Now that’s interesting.” can be the first notice that there is something really unusual going on. My guess is that they’ll discover an error in the shape of the earth, and the two places are a little bit closer together than even highly accurate GPS measure shows them to be.

    Newton is close enough for day-to-day work, including bombs and cannons; Einstein gets you much closer to reality, demonstrated both with GPS and extremely rapid disassembling weapons; this could be the first step to even closer understanding of reality. Which may eventually include DeanDrives. I’m not holding my breath.

  23. @Matthew – Actually, 1.0025 does mean 0.25% faster – 1% faster would be 1.01, 0.1% faster would be 1.001, etc. However, you seem to have introduced another error that kind of cancels that one out – 0.00242 is 2420000 nanoseconds, not 24200.

    BBC ( cites the numbers as 0.0024 seconds for the expected total time, and 0.00000006 sec as the margin above the expected time they actually saw. 0.00000006 / 0.0024 = 0.000025, or 0.0025%.

    So your 0.0025% number is ultimately correct. And if that’s within their margin of error – and I’m not saying it isn’t – then that’s some impressively precise measurements they have there.

  24. The issue of how much faster than light the neutrino went isn’t the key issue though. It’s that it went FTL at all. Light speed is a hard limit according to everything we think we know – very odd things happen if something can go faster (for example, time dilation effects). Now, the odds are that this is some kind of error, but they didn’t just see this measurement, go ‘woo-hoo’ and publish. They’ve apparently tried very hard to find causes for this that don’t have a neutrino going FTL. They haven’t been able to, so they’re doing precisely what real scientists do – they’re asking the physics community to look at what they’ve done and see if they missed anything. That a lot of people have jumped on this in such prestigious physics venues as, oh, io9 and called out simple explanations as the obvious reason for this is disheartening. It presumes that the CERN scientists didn’t look at such obvious explanations and the collective shouting down is anti-scientific.

  25. I seem to remember that when George Bernard Shaw left a legacy to the British Museum (for their Reading Room), the first thing the British Government did was cut their funding by the same amount. Have you checked that your local government won’t simply reduce funding to the library by the amount you’ve donated? Or do you have a better system / more responsible public servants where you are?

  26. #28 by joelfinkle – FTW!

    “Hey, we don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here,” said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

    That made me spit-take my latte. Awesome.

  27. 2) Even if true, being able to exceed FTL by 0.0025% doesn’t really open the flood gates on interstellar travel.

    I suspect that such a fundamental rewriting of physics would have substantially more interesting consequences (i.e. I wouldn’t assume that .0025% is the end of the matter).

  28. I am sure Jimmy Carter has been on the phone to Mitt Romney and told him, “Yeah. It’s exactly like 1976. No one will fault you for calling Barry to schedule debates at this point.”

    Seriously. Does anyone old enough remember the shallow gene pool Carter ran against to get the Democratic nomination? Hell, I was in the fourth grade, and I thought they all were some of the dumbest old white guys I’d ever seen. That’s what the current slate of GOP candidates reminds me of: one smart ex-gov running against a bunch of preening morons. The only difference is Obama is not Jerry Ford.

    But just think of what it’d do for SNL’s ratings if he was.

  29. I think it would be fun to watch all of the fall out from the speedy nutrinos. Maybe I will be able to comprehend the new theories that replace the old ones. Multiverse? Really?

  30. @ Jason: “Maybe it’s just me not knowing enough about physics, but I don’t entirely see what the big deal is. We know that relativity and quantum theory are incompatible; isn’t that what the search for quantum gravity or a grand unified theory is all about?”

    Quantum mechanics and general relativity are totally compatible. There are at least two theories that incorporate both naturally. The real problems are that A) it gets really hard to do the math, and B) it gets really hard to devise experiments that distinguish between these theories.

    When we get to examine a black hole up close, it’ll get a lot clearer. Of course if neutrinos really are FTL, well, interesting stuff happens. String theory finally dies, freeing up theoretical physicists to do useful work, among other things.

  31. @Scalzi Jason & Craig Ranapia:

    Huntsman at least acknowledged there was a problem with it. So did Santorum. (While I think he answer to the question was awful, but I think his response to the boos was pretty good.) Perry and Romney refused to comment. And Bachmann and Cain thought it was no big deal.

    Remember when “support the troops” was a big deal for Republicans? Doesn’t seem to be important anymore.

  32. I suspect that the neutrino measurement will prove to be accurate and I suspect that Relativity will prove to be accurate as well.

    Ultimately I think that we will discover that the neutrino took a short cut. Which in itself will make things very interesting. I also suspect that they will find that the shortcut was in the math all along.

  33. About neutrinos.
    Has been a bit of talk about the newtrino neutino neutrino stuff over at
    (Odd looking link, but it worked in two other browsers that I’ve set to not
    keep cookies.)
    But I’m hungry, and can’t spell: So, how does one cook up a nutria.
    Perhaps like squirrel? ;p

    And as an aside: most browsers have accessibility options where one
    can set the minimum font size. I use it, but an unfortunate thing is that
    some fonts have a size fifteen that looks on my monitor as about a size
    nine. (Hey, sweety, does my gut make this shirt look tight?)

%d bloggers like this: