Science, which is never wrong and knows everything, is stumped by particles flying out of Antarctica’s ice

By —— Bio and Archives--October 1, 2018

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stumped by particles flying out of Antarctica's ice
Science is a wonderful discipline, a fascinating process by which we seek to understand what goes on throughout God’s creation. We’ve discovered and learned many things through science. We’ve also learned of new questions we wouldn’t have otherwise known to ask.

I am a fan.


But science is a discipline. It’s not an authority. It’s not a judge. It’s as limited as the ability of humans to design models and apply their knowledge to them. We’ve used it to gain tremendous knowledge, but we’ve also had to make adjustments over time, because often what we thought we were sure of has given way to discoveries or events we would have previously thought not to be possible.

The discipline of physics is experiencing a moment like that right now, and it’s spurred by event taking place in Antarctica. And in space.

Scientific American reports that particles are flying out of the ice in Antarctica. And they’re coming from space. In other words, they’re blasting their way into the Earth from outer space, and somehow making their way back out on the other side without crashing into anything during the trip.

Why is that a big deal? Because previous assumptions of particle physics suggested particles couldn’t possibly do that, which means the way these particles are behaving is challenging everything scientists thought they knew about physics:

Physicists don’t know what it is exactly. But they do know it’s some sort of cosmic ray—a high-energy particle that’s blasted its way through space, into the Earth, and back out again. But the particles physicists know about—the collection of particles that make up what scientists call the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics—shouldn’t be able to do that. Sure, there are low-energy neutrinos that can pierce through miles upon miles of rock unaffected. But high-energy neutrinos, as well as other high-energy particles, have “large cross-sections.” That means that they’ll almost always crash into something soon after zipping into the Earth and never make it out the other side.

And yet, since March 2016, researchers have been puzzling over two events in Antarctica where cosmic rays did burst out from the Earth, and were detected by NASA’s Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA)—a balloon-borne antenna drifting over the southern continent.

ANITA is designed to hunt cosmic rays from outer space, so the high-energy neutrino community was buzzing with excitement when the instrument detected particles that seemed to be blasting up from Earth instead of zooming down from space. Because cosmic rays shouldn’t do that, scientists began to wonder whether these mysterious beams are made of particles never seen before.

Since then, physicists have proposed all sorts of explanations for these “upward going” cosmic rays, from sterile neutrinos (neutrinos that rarely ever bang into matter) to “atypical dark matter distributions inside the Earth,” referencing the mysterious form of matter that doesn’t interact with light.

All the explanations were intriguing, and suggested that ANITA might have detected a particle not accounted for in the Standard Model. But none of the explanations demonstrated conclusively that something more ordinary couldn’t have caused the signal at ANITA.

A new paper uploaded today (Sept. 26) to the preprint server arXiv changes that. In it, a team of astrophysicists from Penn State University showed that there have been more upward-going high-energy particles than those detected during the two ANITA events. Three times, they wrote, IceCube (another, larger neutrino observatory in Antarctica) detected similar particles, though no one had yet connected those events to the mystery at ANITA. And, combining the IceCube and ANITA data sets, the Penn State researchers calculated that, whatever particle is bursting up from the Earth, it has much less than a 1-in-3.5 million chance of being part of the Standard Model. (In technical, statistical terms, their results had confidences of 5.8 and 7.0 sigma, depending on which of their calculations you’re looking at.)

The key detail here is that the particles are behaving in a way that, as far as physicists were concerned before all this started, was impossible. If not a “settled” matter, it was considered generally understood via the Standard Model of particle physics that particles simply couldn’t go all the way through the Earth, emerge on the other side and fly back into space.

Yet these particles are doing just that, which is throwing into question everything once thought to be understood about particle physics.

It’s actually a very exciting moment. It’s an opportunity to discover new possibilities and dive into the process of learning what they might mean. If this is possible where we previously thought it wasn’t, what else is? What else does this call into question? What other assumptions might now be open to reconsideration?

Opening up questions like this could lead to all kinds of new knowledge. This is when science is at its best.

But first it requires an openness to the realization that what was once thought to be settled may not have been right after all. This is why those in science who question orthodoxies play such an important role. Without those willing to challenge convention, we might never discover new information that leads to wonderful steps forward in knowledge and the human experience.

Provided, of course, that the “scientific community” doesn’t tell those who raise such questions to shut up and get in line.

But when would that ever happen?


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Dan Calabrese -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Dan Calabrese’s column is distributed by HermanCain.com, which can be found at HermanCain

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