Thursday, October 30, 2008
Here's a letter I received today in an ecology list serve. I enjoyed it, may you as well.
I was intrigued to find one of my favourite particles, the neutrino, show up on this list. As Dr. Novee says, they are hard to find. But I think that there is much about the neutrino that is relevant to ecology.
Ecologists often take it for granted that if theory and experiment disagree, the theory must be wrong. That is how the neutrino was first "discovered", because experiments on scattering produced results that were theoretically impossible - the Compton effect violated both conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. Did the theorists yield? No, they postulated an invisible particle called the neutrino which carried off the missing energy and momentum. No ecologist would fall for such a sneaky trick!
The neutrino concept was of course pure speculation, which many ecologists claim has no place in science.
For many decades there was no experimental evidence for the neutrino (as for the quark and the Higgs boson). And yet, physicists didn't give up, and astrophysicists even started hypothesizing that much of the matter ("dark matter") in the universe consisted of neutrinos.
So far only a handful of neutrinos have been "seen" (the evidence is really sketchy, just a few flashes of light in huge tanks of liquid), certainly not enough to satisfy the ecological standards for experimental proof. On the other hand, there is a noteworthy precedent for building theoretical castles on just a small mound of experimental mud - Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits was inspired by a minor discrepancy between the centuries old theory of epicycles and the observations of his great mentor, Tycho Brahe.
As regards science and politics, when I was a graduate student we thought it was a great joke to spead a whispering campaign about a new weapon, the neutrino bomb, against which there could be no defense. After all, since neutrinos can pass through the entire earth, what man-made shield could deflect them? Of course the reluctance of neutrinos to interact with matter also meant that they could do no harm, which made them the perfect weapon, no defense and no damage. But a wise professor told us to stop before the military heard of this, as they did not appreciate jokes and would spend billions on it before they caught on, and then we would be in deep trouble.