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.