World Science Festival: Neutrinos

On Friday night, The New School again hosted an event for the World Science Festival. This time, the discussion centered around some of nature’s tiniest known particles – neutrinos. Bill Weir, of Nightline fame, moderated the conversation among three panelists. Janet Conrad, a professor of physics at MIT, works on an experiment called MiniBooNE to probe the nature of neutrinos. Francis Halzen is a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and his research helped to make the largest neutrino detector in the world a reality. The final panelist, Lawrence Krauss, is a best-selling author and theoretical physicist at Arizona State University.

A quick background on these particles: neutrinos are subatomic particles, like protons and neutrons, but much smaller. Neutrinos also have no electric charge, and so don’t interact with matter very often, travelling through even the core of a star with ease. In fact, there are hundreds of millions of them passing harmlessly through your body at this very second, coming from other galaxies, nearby stars, and our own sun. You might ask why we should care about them if they are so utterly harmless and uninterested in the rest of the universe. The answer? They display properties which challenge one of the most basic and robust models of physics we have. The Standard Model of particle physics predicts that neutrinos would have no mass. They have been observed to oscillate, though, something which only particles with mass can do. Neutrino physics, then, is one area physicists are exploring for clues as to how to articulate a more complete model for the physical universe.


Krauss pointed out that physicists love when they’re wrong. He used the opportunity to take a swipe at religion. Don’t take it too harshly – while a very talented physicist and writer, Krauss consistently displays an astounding lack of depth, from insulting Belgians while onstage with a Belgian to using “supernatural” in his blog postings as if it means the same thing as magic. Funnily enough, it was a Belgian priest who proposed the Big Bang theory. His broader point still stands; being wrong means that there is more to learn. Being wrong about whether neutrinos have mass means that there is more to learn about how the universe works. Catholics can take this point to heart, as well. While we firmly trust in the truths of the faith, such as the Resurrection, there is still much about which we can be wrong. For example, 19th and 20th century biblical criticism has led us to a much fuller appreciation of the richness and complexity of our scriptures as something other than a mere factual history. Armed with such a humble approach to our reality, not only can we shrug off the criticisms of people like Krauss, we can experience the same sense of wonder which drives so much of the scientific community.

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Marie Rehbein
6 years 7 months ago
"...not only can we shrug off the criticisms of people like Krauss..."

Surely, the man's comments regarding religion cannot have been that important.  Consider that he wasn't referring to Catholicism, but rather to the religious fundamentalism that, for example, seeks to discredit evolutionary theory on the basis of literal interpretations of the book of Genesis.

To quote a local school's representative: "...of course, [we discredit evolutionary theory in our science classes] because we believe in the Bible..."

My response, "well, my children are Catholic, and the Catholic Church accepts evolutionary theory".

Her response, "oh?".
Tim O'Leary
6 years 7 months ago

Krauss is an anti-religious bigot in that he sweepingly and unthinkingly  denigrates religion and religious people a la Richard Dawkins, and describes himself as a close friend of the latter. They frequently share the same podium. He might have been restrained in a mixed audience like this conference but if you go onto YouTube, you can see what he really thinks in more friendly anti-Christian audiences.
Marie Rehbein
6 years 7 months ago
Speaking of neutrinos...or something like that...I would bet Dr. Krauss would be willing to consider this event:

My son lost his wallet.  We were on our way from Las Cruces to Alamogordo to a theater where my daughter would be in a ballet.  My son wanted a book to pass the hour of driving, so I stopped at the library, where he ran in and checked out a book.  While we were driving, he took out his wallet to check the receipt for the book to note when it would be due.

When we got to Alamogordo, we dropped off my daughter, and my son and I went out for dinner.  Then we went to the theater and watched the ballet and drove home.

The next day my son could not find his wallet.  I had forgotten about his having taken out his wallet in the van.  He remembered having put it on the seat instead of back in his pocket, so I worried that it had fallen out when he got out in Alamogordo.

To be thorough, I called the theater to see if it had been left there.  I called the library, in case he wasn't remembering correctly.  The family took turns searching the van.  We deactivated his ATM card.

The next night of the ballet, my husband and other daughter took my daughter to the ballet in the same vehicle.  They sat in the same seats in the theater.  They looked around for the wallet and asked the manager if it had been found, all to no avail.

Meanwhile, my son and I looked in every corner of the house.  After an hour of looking and thinking, we could think of nothing more to do, so I, a skeptic, asked him what saint supposedly helps people find things.  We guessed St. Anthony, and I said that he might try that, and then, a cynic, I suggested we call on someone who was still needing a miracle to his credit because he might be more motivated to help.  My son suggested Pope John Paul II. 

I said, scientifically minded, that in order to believe it to be more than coincidence, it would have to meet certain requirements.  I said, "how about the wallet has to show up in your bathroom on the counter?"-a room we had checked thoroughly-and we left it at that.

After a while, I decided to get ready for bed.  I was in my bathroom brushing my teeth when I got this image in my mind that my older daughter, not the one in the ballet, found the wallet on the seat of the van, something very unlikely considering all the searching that had been done.  I finished brushing my teeth, and just as I left my bathroom, I got a text on my phone.  Amazingly, my older daughter texted: "I just found Brendan's wallet".  I texted back, "where?".  She texted, "on the seat next to me".

They were in the middle of the White Sands Missile Range when this occurred.  When they arrived home a half hour later, she was saying how strange it was that she just put her hand down in a relaxed gesture and felt the wallet under her hand.  Brendan and I were amazed and wondered whether this qualified Pope John Paul II for sainthood?  From the scientist's perspective, the experiment failed, but from a religious person's perspective, it was a miracle.

From my perspective, it suggests keeping an open mind.
Tim O'Leary
6 years 7 months ago
Marie #3
I have had similar inexplicable blessings after prayer. Of course, they are not miracles in the sense of appearing to overcome any natural process. They are uncanny coincidences of natural events, easily dismissed by a skeptical mind, as these one-time events are not amenable to any scientific examination. But, no scientist could ever disprove that such an event did not come from God.

So, I agree that an open mind is the right stance to others who claim such private experiences. I would only mildly suggest that in petitioning the Creator, the most reasonable approach of us human creatures is to avoid making the request as a ''test'' of the Lord (such as requiring the wallet show up in the bathroom), but more as a humble presentation of the problem (remember Mary just said ''they have no wine'') and request that His will be done.

Now, on Lawrence Krauss, his recent book A Universe from Nothing was reviewed in First Things and gives some idea of the intellectual limits of scientific thinkers.

Krauss is not without controversy in other issues as well. See here


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