25 September 2011


Several days ago, scientists at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, announced that "they recorded particles traveling faster than light ~ a finding that could overturn Einstein's fundamental laws of the universe .... Measurements taken over three years showed neutrinos pumped from CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, to Gran Sasso in Italy had arrived 60 nanoseconds quicker than light would have done .... If confirmed, the discovery would undermine Einstein's theory of special relativity, which says that the speed of light [approximately 186,000 miles per second] is a 'cosmic constant' and that nothing in the universe can travel faster.

"Light would have covered the 500 mile distance in around 2.4 thousandths of a second, but the neutrinos took 60 billionths of a second less time than light beams would have taken."

The announcement is, in the tradition of the scientific method, only a preliminary step toward confirmation or refutation of faster-than-light particle travel. Years of peer review and duplication of the procedures by independent observers will be required before the results are accepted as real. But the CERN researchers appear to have been quite rigorous in their measurements and interpretations ~ and they themselves insist that others must confirm their findings (see the brief video embedded in the article). If the light-speed barrier can be overcome, one theoretical implication might be time travel. But that possibility is decades in the future. Still, the greatest leaps in our knowledge have been born in our imaginations and our dreams.

Speaking of dreams, another news item grabbed my attention earlier in the week. "Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and computational models, UC Berkeley researchers have succeeded in decoding and reconstructing people's dynamic visual experiences ~ in this case, watching Hollywood movie trailers. As yet, the technology can only reconstruct movie clips people have already viewed. However, the breakthrough paves the way for reproducing the movies inside our heads that no one else sees, such as dreams or memories, according to researchers.

"Eventually, practical applications of the technology could include a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of people who cannot communicate verbally, such as stroke victims, coma patients, and people with neurodegenerative diseases. It may also lay the groundwork for brain-machine interface so that people with cerebral palsy or paralysis, for example, can guide computers with their minds. However, researchers point out that the technology is decades away from allowing users to read others' thoughts and intentions."

The implications are fascinating, though we should be careful what we wish for. Being able to read the minds of others would be interesting and useful at first. But the potential for psychic overload is immense. I foresee many biological complications before this vision ever reaches fruition. Our brains are nuanced and complex systems, with built in redundancy, They operate partially on electrical impulses and partially on biochemical neurotransmitters and receivers. Further, our thoughts, memories and dreams are not linear, like movies, but layered and fragmented, with several or multiple activities happening simultaneously. Teasing out the flow of a particular dream or memory could be daunting indeed.

Further, I rather like the privacy of my own thoughts, even recognizing the medical gains described above. And finally, there is the fine line which science and technology walks ~ on the one hand, with the best intentions of doing good, and on the other, with the potential for abuse by those with low scruples.

But then, it has ever been thus, hasn't it?

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