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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Scientists Want a Billion Dollars for the Wrong Type of Ghost Study

A panel of physicists just recommended to the federal government that the United States should spend a billion dollars studying neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle. They propose building a giant neutrino beam that will shoot neutrinos 800 miles from a Fermilab facility in Illinois to a laboratory in South Dakota. The project is called the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment. 


This project can be called a ghost study, because neutrinos are known as ghost particles. Neutrinos are particles which were once believed to have no mass, but which are now believed to have the tiniest bit of mass, a mass much, much less than the mass of an electron (the least massive particle in an atom). About 100 trillion ghostly neutrinos pass through your body harmlessly every second.

Do we need to spend this billion dollars to verify that neutrinos exist? No, we already know that they exist. Do we need to spend this money to verify how much mass a neutrino has? No, we already know that pretty well. Do we need to study neutrinos because they are some crucial link in our existence? Not really. I could give you an explanation of why you probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for neutrinos (an explanation having to do with supernova explosions and the origin of heavy elements); but the fact is that you could probably live out the rest of your day just fine without any neutrinos.

So why do scientists want the billion dollars to study neutrinos? In this news story a physicist named Joe Lykken gives this explanation: “What CERN (the European collider operator) did for the Higgs boson, we want to do with the neutrino.” But that justification doesn't hold water. The CERN project verified the existence of the Higgs boson, and there is no need to verify the existence of neutrinos. We already know they exist.

The AP news article here discusses the project, but fails to give any good reason for its existence. Besides Lykken's statement, the article quotes a Cal Tech physicist who says, “Neutrinos could give scientists clues about the mysterious 'dark matter' of outer space and other 'weird astrophysical phenomena.' ” But dark matter is believed to be something entirely different from neutrinos. Asking for a billion dollars to play with neutrinos in order to understand dark matter is like asking for a billion dollars to study rocks so that you can understand trees.

I thought that perhaps the home page of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment could do a better job of justifying the project, but I still found no coherent justification for the project on that page. The main relevant claim made is this: “Neutrinos may play a key role in solving the mystery of how the universe came to consist only of matter rather than antimatter.” Oh, really? So how come the CERN page discussing this mystery does not even mention the neutrino? And how come this larger Stanford PDF discussing that mystery in no way hints that it could be solved by learning about neutrinos? The “mystery of how the universe came to consist of matter rather than antimatter” is not a mystery involving neutrinos, but an entirely different class of particles: baryons.

Could it be that the main reason for the proposed neutrino project is that scientists just want a new billion dollar toy to play with? Could it be that this project is mainly just a big welfare program for physicists, with a minimal chance of justifying its cost? The proposed neutrino project seems to have “boondoggle” written all over it. I do not say this because I am some opponent of all large scientific projects (I am, in fact, a supporter of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is even more expensive than the neutrino project I am discussing).

I am reminded of another scientific project, the LIGO project which spent 375 million dollars of taxpayer dollars looking for gravitational waves (mainly in hopes of verifying a pet theory of cosmologists). The LIGO project came up empty-handed, completely failing to discover what it was looking for. In the case of this neutrino project, there doesn't even seem to be some clear goal that is being sought.

As it will study the “ghost particles” called neutrinos, but seems like an over-expensive giant boondoggle, we can call the proposed neutrino project “the wrong type of ghost study.” But that raises the question – could there be a right type of ghost study? Indeed, there could be. The right type of ghost study might be one that used only 1 percent of the cost of the proposed neutrino super-project, and used those funds (a mere 10 million dollars) to actually study...ghosts.

By ghosts I mean, of course, the unexplained phenomenon that human beings (including some very famous ones) have long reported seeing unexplained apparitions – sometimes what are reported to be the figures of human beings, and other times what are reported to be little glowing orbs or unexplained shadows.

I can think of several possible explanations:

Hypothesis 1: Everyone who reports seeing a ghost is just a fraud, a fool, or someone who got excited over something that had a natural explanation (such as some object falling because of gravity).
Hypothesis 2: There is some interesting physical glitch in the human brain that causes people to see things like ghosts that aren't really there.
Hypothesis 3: For some reason the human brain occasionally releases chemicals which causes people to have hallucinations of ghosts.
Hypothesis 4: Ghosts come from some other dimension, or some other time, due to some weird space-time glitch or phenomenon involving space-time wormholes.
Hypothesis 5: Ghosts are not just ordinary hallucinations, but a kind of bizarre psychokinetic hallucination, capable of affecting electronic media, which may explain why many people have reported photos of ghosts or sound recordings of ghost voices.
Hypothesis 6: People see ghosts because there is some kind of human soul that actually survives death (a hypothesis consistent with reports of near-death experiences).

These are all interesting possibilities, and regardless of what the truth is, if we were to spend about 10 million dollars in an organized, objective study of ghost sightings, we might be able to figure out which hypothesis is correct. Such an expenditure seems justified because this is a topic of great public interest which has a significant chance of discovering something important for a relatively small expenditure of funds. But you may object: oh, come on, the US government can't spend millions of dollars studying ghosts!

But I will remind the reader of two facts. First, the US government has already funded a 17-year project studying UFO's (the Project Blue Book of the United States Air Force). Second, the US military has already funded over the course of two decades a project studying psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing – the StarGate project discussed here. As the US government has already spent a long time studying UFO's and psychic phenomena, why shouldn't the US government fund a very modest scientific study of ghost sightings?

I could see why even a skeptic might support such a study. Right now investigations of ghost sightings seem to be done almost uniquely by television shows. There are several very popular series that do this, such as Celebrity Ghost Stories, Ghost Adventures, and A Haunting. But if the US government issues an official report on its investigation into ghosts, than perhaps a skeptic might be able to use that as cold water he can throw on such paranormal enthusiasm.

Such a federal research project on ghost sightings would be of great public interest, and could be done objectively and scientifically for relatively little cost (only 10 million dollars). We might call this the right type of ghost study. But it will never get funded. Instead, the US government will probably end up dropping 100 times more money (a billion dollars) studying ghostly neutrino particles that are of no interest to hardly anyone other than a very small group of physicists, in a project that is very unlikely to even answer any of the top questions of physicists.

We will probably spend a billion dollars on the wrong type of ghost study.

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