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Jewish World Review August 29, 2001 / 10 Elul, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Lesson for the scientific faithful: Some theories come with strings attached -- WHEN the alleged truths to which we pledge allegiance get called into question, it can be radically disorienting.

That's what the world of physics is experiencing now. New research indicates that the speed of light, which scientists have held to be one of the solid rocks of cosmology, has changed over time. It would be like discovering that the spouse to whom you've been happily married for 55 years has been cheating on you from the start.

And yet there's a fascinating upside to this new wrinkle in time. If the findings hold up on further analysis, they may add support to a relatively new theory about the fundamental structure of the universe. String Theory, as it's called, seems to be able to accommodate the many discomforting implications of a change in the speed of light in a way that standard physics cannot. Current theories, in fact, depend on the constancy of the speed of light.

String Theory (sometimes called Superstring Theory) and its outgrowth, M Theory, postulate a bizarre world of more than four dimensions (three in space plus time). String Theory proposes a 10- or 26-dimensional universe.

According to this theory, the dimensions we can't see or even validate yet by experiment are somehow folded or curled up. Thus they remain so far undetectable. The best explanation that I've read of this is Brian Greene's book, The Elegant Universe. He writes with clarity even for nonscientists.

The new speed-of-light research published Monday in a prestigious journal called Physical Review Letters. The work was done by scientists in Britain, Australia and the United States, led by John K. Webb of the University of New South Wales in Australia. Webb is not the first to suggest the possibility of light changing speed, but his team's research is the most extensive and convincing.

"If it's correct," Webb says, "it's the result of a lifetime."

Naturally, some scientists are skeptical because the results would drastically undermine what they thought they knew and because the conclusion was based on very small changes observed at great distances.

Even those who have adopted a show-me-more-proof attitude acknowledge that the Webb team has done its work well and carefully, but, as one doubter noted: "The effect does not scream out at you from the data. You have to get down on all fours and claw through the details to see such a small effect."

I don't have the expertise -- or the space -- to get into the small print of the Webb research. But, in brief, the scientists used the huge Keck telescope in Hawaii to observe patterns of absorption of light coming from as far away as 12 billion light years. They discovered what they say is a small change in the "fine structure constant," a number that determines the strength of electromagnetic force and, thus, the speed of light.

But such details aren't what intrigue me. Rather, I'm engaged by the idea that much of what we think we know, we know only tentatively. And yet we often have no doubts about our knowledge, which we think can never be challenged by what theologians often call "new light."

In science, this upsetting of the apple cart happens regularly. Even so, some scientists get so attached to a particular theory or vision of reality that they feel ruined when new evidence disputes their long-held position.

Albert Einstein's work, of course, uprooted much of what we thought Isaac Newton had taught us about the physical world. Indeed, Newtonian physics, which still has great value, reigned without challenge for a long time.

In more recent times, the subatomic work of particle physicists (at the small scale of things) and cosmologists (at the large scale) have been challenged left and right by new data. The current foundational understandings of quantum mechanics, in fact, cannot be reconciled with current foundational understandings of cosmology. It's String Theory that promises an overarching framework in which cosmology and quantum physics can live with one another.

In social, economic, theological, political and other areas, there are similar conflicts of views and theories. Our task in all areas of life is not to be moral relativists but, nonetheless, to hold truth gently. It requires long practice and what the ancient monk St. Benedict rightly called humility.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved