Sunday, September 25, 2011

Admitting Errors and Credibility

A number of people wrote to me about last week's report that a group of scientists at CERN tentatively claimed to have measured neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light - which modern science, based on special relativity, deems impossible. "If scientists were wrong about this, then maybe they were wrong about everything!" Maybe the universe isn't really 14 billion years old - maybe it's only 5771 years old! Maybe the kidneys really do provide counsel to the heart! Maybe elephants really do jump to reach food!

And maybe the world really is flat?

Of course, the correct view is that some scientific facts are better grounded than others. Scientists might have to change their mind one day about the universe being 14 billion years old, but they are not going to discover that it is only a few thousand years old. We have oodles to learn about how the mind works, but we're never going to discover that it is housed in the kidneys and heart rather than the brain. And, as many surprises as there will be in zoology, I don't think that we will ever discover that elephants jump to reach food. For the non-specialist, it might be difficult to determine how well-established different scientific facts are. But it should be relatively easy to find out that the issues which concern (some) Jews - the antiquity of the universe, the common ancestry of living creatures, the non-existence of a global Flood, the non-existence of spontaneous generation, the sun traveling on the other side of the world at night rather than behind the sky - are very well grounded and will not ever be overturned.

A second important point to realize is that, even if there is a slight chance that one of these scientific facts will be overturned, so what? Right now, they are overwhelmingly well supported. We use airplanes and X-rays regardless of the possibility that science might one day overturn the principles of aerodynamics and radiation.

There's another interesting point to be made here. I recently noticed that some people feel that if a person admits to making an error, he subsequently has less credibility. When I admitted a while ago that I erred in my identification of one of the creatures in Perek Shirah, someone responded that if that is so, then how can I have credibility for anything?! And, of course, there is a popular view in the charedi world that the Gedolim could never be wrong - because they have never been wrong! My own view, on the other hand - and this is standard in rationalist circles - is that if someone admits to error, then they have more credibility. But someone who never makes any such admission is more likely to be intellectually dishonest and thus has less credibility.

Finally, I came across the following cartoon, which I think nails it: (note that if you read this blog via email or RSS feed, you might not be able to see it; in which case you'll have to visit www.rationalistjudaism.com)
On another note, if anyone is coming from the US to Bet Shemesh and can bring something for me, please email me at zoorabbi@zootorah.com.

37 comments:

  1. Rabbi Slifkin, we haven't seen common ancestry. We have seen things stay below the speed of light. Whether a particular person feels something is not going to be overthrown, science does not tell you what will be overthrown and what won't. If you say there is mountains of evidence for common ancestry well there's mountains of evidence for not going faster than the speed of light. If you feel common ancestry will never be overthrown that is your estimate but science never gives such guarantees.

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  2. YA,

    Point taken - no guarantees on the speed of light or common ancestry, so go ahead and reject them in accordance with your religious imperative.

    As you have seen in the excellent Bitterman - Scoffer debate , reasonable dialogue leading to a reasonable conclusion by both sides is quite impossible, so what do you want?

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  3. I didn't know you read XKCD! Good taste!

    You should probably properly ascribe the cartoon and post the permanent link:

    http://xkcd.com/955/.

    And I should point out that all XKCD's come with a tooltip that usually has a punchline.

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  4. some themes you have touched upon mentioned here

    http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

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  5. "the non-existence of a global Flood"
    - Your saying the flood of Noah didn't happen (according to your opinion)?

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  6. I thought that the main concern of the commentor(s) on your bat-man post was not so much that you were wrong, but rather that you took a (educated) guess and published that. In the post you didn't really explain that in the book you also made clear that it was only an educated guess (I haven't seen the book, but I'm assuming that's what you did). If you really published guesses, without explaining that that is all they are, then that would be troubling; I think that was his concern. Admitting that your educated guess was wrong, however, isn't (or shouldn't be) troubling.

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  7. Yitz Waxman,

    What I believe is that nothing goes faster than the speed of light. I find the opposite conclusion feeling like a knife in the back. My point is, that's my problem, not science's.

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  8. RNS: "there is a popular view in the charedi world that the Gedolim could never be wrong - because they have never been wrong!"

    isn't popular Charedi view the other way around? The Gedolim have never been wrong - because they could never be wrong!

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  9. The problem is that the halachic approach and the scientific approach are very different and using one to manage the other results in idiotic results.
    To wit: until now the axiom was that nothing can travel faster than light. However, the door was open to prove that axiom wrong which may have been done. No big deal, just come up with a new one.
    Pluto used to be a planet until the standards changed. Now it's not. No big deal, these things happen and they're not error but an acceptance of evolving scientific knowledge.
    Halacha, on the other hand, works backwards. Each generation is lower than the one preceding it so there is no chance of a new axiom superceding an old one. People immersed in halacha therefore see what happens in science and can't understand the difference.

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  10. I agree with both this post and the cartoon. If I were a betting man, I would place my money on the side of an error in the Italian measurement of neutrino speed, either in the distance traveled or the timing of the origin and arrival signals to account for a time difference from that expected for the speed of light of some nanoseconds. In any case, it is premature, if not downright foolish, to base one's ideas about science from some news article. Such articles, should, rather, be viewed as PR efforts. A much better assessment will have to wait for the publication of the evidence in a peer-reviewed physics journal.

    This issue does, however, point out the way that science progresses. Someone with some credibility makes an ostensibly revolutionary observation. It is neither flatly rejected nor immediately accepted. Rather, it becomes an issue that requires independent corroboration in order to become accepted. Even then, effort will be expended to explain the experimental results without violating a central pillar of 20th century physics. Such explanations, in turn, will require further testing. In the end, knowledge will have advanced.

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  11. "I didn't read the book but I'm assuming you did that"

    Why would you assume that or even comment in that way if you haven't read the book and you are just making a blind accusation against someone 'cuz it sounds good' ? That sort of comment offers nothing of value to the discussion here, just more tangential misdirection and deception of other readers.

    To tzvi be roshel- based on previous posts here rabbi slifkin believes it was a local flood to mesopotamia rather than global.

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  12. In a sense, this isn't news, since "spooky action at a distance", i.e. quantum entanglement has been experimentally verified. IIRC, basically, entangle two particles, separate them by as much distance as you want ( put them on separate sides of the galaxy ) and then measure the state of one of the particles. That measurement affects the state of the second particle. Effectively, some kind of "information" has traveled instantaneously from point A to point B, traveling faster than the speed of light, in fact traveling with what seems to be infinite speed. As far as I know no one knows how to explain it. So finding something that travels faster than the speed of light may have technically already been done.

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  13. You might like to check out this discussion on theyeshivaworld web site (very charedi, as its name implies) about the sun going behind the rakia at night. It starts off in utterly moronic fashion, but then it gets surprisingly sophisticated.
    http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/coffeeroom/topic/hashkofa-help

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  14. R' Slifkin,

    I have only been reading for a few months, but I did not realize you acknowledge there not having been a global flood. That is quite different from acknowledging an error in Chazal. Do you believe God erred in stating that the entire world was wiped out?

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  15. To Y. Aharon:

    You wrote:

    "This issue does, however, point out the way that science progresses. Someone with some credibility makes an ostensibly revolutionary observation. It is neither flatly rejected nor immediately accepted. Rather, it becomes an issue that requires independent corroboration in order to become accepted. Even then, effort will be expended to explain the experimental results without violating a central pillar of 20th century physics. Such explanations, in turn, will require further testing. In the end, knowledge will have advanced."


    I'm not sure this is actually how science progresses (I do know that there is serious literature on the topic, one book on my to-read list is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Structure_of_Scientific_Revolutions). Here are some of my initial thoughts based on my current understanding:

    "Someone with some credibility makes an ostensibly revolutionary observation"

    I don't think it's always this neat and clean. The first guy to actually observe a cell wasn't a scientist (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonie_van_Leeuwenhoek - I know Wikipedia claims he was, but the BBC documentary I saw on the cell said otherwise).

    Ignaz Semmelweis wasn't so well respected (to say the least): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis

    Einstein was working as a cleark in a Swiss patent office.

    Watson and Crick weren't really taken so seriously (until they discovered the structure of DNA).



    It is neither flatly rejected nor immediately accepted.

    Sometimes it is flatly rejected (see Semmelweis - or even Einstein vis-a-vis Quantum Physics, although the Physics community accepted the idea). Sometimes it is readily accepted (Einstein, Quantum Physics, structure of DNA, BigBang theory, after cosmic background raditation discovery).



    Even then, effort will be expended to explain the experimental results without violating a central pillar of 20th century physics.

    This is where Kuhn's work becomes important. He talks about working within paradigms until the contradictions become so great that a new paradigm is required. If indeed neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light that sounds to me like the type of evidence which will have far-reaching implications (how far I have no idea). It doesnt' mean that we will throw Einstein out, but I imagine that we will look at him in a new light and perhaps look for other excpetions. I also imagine that we may reevaluate various theories and/or models which depend on the idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

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  16. student v said...
    "'I didn't read the book but I'm assuming you did that'

    Why would you assume that or even comment in that way if you haven't read the book and you are just making a blind accusation against someone 'cuz it sounds good' ? That sort of comment offers nothing of value to the discussion here, just more tangential misdirection and deception of other readers."

    Firstly, when I said 'I didn't read the book but I'm assuming you did that' I was not making an accusation, but rather was being dan l'caf zchut. I'm saying that I assume/hope that R. Slifkin made it clear in the book that his suggestion was only an educated guess, rather than claim it to be fact. The alternative, that R. Slifkin presented as fact something he only guessed, would be a negative accusation. I'm doing the exact opposite.
    If my comment wasn't clear, I apologize.
    Furthermore, something R. Slifkin said in his comments on that page seemed to corroborate what I said (that he didn't misrepresent as guess as fact, but rather mentioned in the book itself that it was only a guess). Not having read the book, I cannot know, so I am assuming/judging favourably that he did.

    The ultimate point is that I don't think that the commenter lost faith in R. Slifkin because R. Slifkin was wrong (and admitted to it). I think he lost faith because he THOUGHT that R. Slifkin has passed off a guess as fact when he shouldn't have. I'm hoping that in reality, R. Slifkin didn't do that, but not having read the book, I simply don't know. I only assume that, based on what I've seen of R. Slifkin's intellectual honesty, he would not have misrepresented guesses as facts. (But reading the bat-man post, I can see why someone would have thought that that is what R. Slifkin was admitting to.)

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  17. I was under the impression that all general relativity stated was that nothing could travel at the speed of light it didn't make predictions about anything that always travels faster - neutrinos are wierd particles maybe they are similar to tachyons talked about in science fiction

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  18. "Do you believe God erred in stating that the entire world was wiped out?"

    Obviously God, by definition, cannot err!

    See this post: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/10/dealing-with-deluge.html

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  19. Shlomo Tachyons always travel faster than light assuming they exist and it sure would be fun if they do. They are forced by Relativity to stay above light speed. The problem is neutrinos are not forced to stay above light speed. Unless maybe there is some spacetime warping or some method of skipping space neutrinos should not be traveling faster than light.

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  20. Very well said, Rabbi Slifkin, especially your point about some things being more firmly grounded than others. The ability to make these kinds of distinctions is one of the things that separates rational discussion from polemics. With regards to some of the issues raised in the comments about halacha, I believe that is an apples and oranges discussion. Halacha cannot and should not be revised the way science is revised, because there is a need for stability in halacha, as in any social or legal system. Where rabbis get in trouble is when they start applying this attitude to hasgacha and science, in which case an inflexible approach based on the idea of daas torah simply makes them seem more and more foolish and out of touch with reality.

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  21. I remember asking a very charedi rebbe of mine back in elementary school how, if the mabul overturned the whole world- even underground- we could say that Adam and Chava were buried in Me'arat HaMachpela. He took me aside and very quietly told me that the mabul didn't affect Eretz Yisrael.

    That was an eye opener.

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  22. To Rabbi Slifkin,

    It seems that one of my comments did not get published - I'll try and recreate it.

    In terms of Common Descent - I don't think it's nearly as solid a theory as you state it to be - certainly not going back to a single (or a set of original) cells.

    The modern version of origins/development of life goes something like this. Shortly after the Earth was formed single-celled life began. Life continued in its single-celled form for a few billion years (although the nature of the cell may have changed). At some point, simple multi-cell life began.

    And then, in what is called a geological blink of an eye, there was an explosion of life. Fully formed created with eyes, skeletons and nervous systems. All the phyla of life are traced back to this explosion of life. This is, of course, what is called the Cambrian Explosion.

    The Cambrian Explosion poses a big problem for common ancestry as it seems to be a total disconnect from what came before. There is no gradual development or even jumps and starts towards the creates we find in the Cambrian. There is just a sudden switch.

    What's more, many leading scientists (such as Simon Conway Morris) believe that this explosion is real and not just a result of lack of evidence (they give reasons why they think it is real)

    As such, it seems that at most, common descent can reach only back to the Cambrian Explosion and no further. At least that is what the data would suggest today.

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  23. Moshe, that's really not an accurate description of the Cambrian explosion. But this is not the forum for that discussion. Besides, if you want to argue that there is common descent back to then, but not further, then you're occupying a very lonely position - neither scientists nor creationists will agree with you!

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  24. Moshe, I merely gave an example of how science - specifically physics, progresses. That doesn't mean that the scenario that I advanced is always followed. Actually, one of your examples is a good illustration of my point. A static universe in space and time was a long held belief - at least as far back as Aristotle. Hence, the idea, based on Einsteins equations for General Relativity, that time and space had a beginning was not generally accepted. Even Einstein held on to the static universe model. He changed his mind only when experimental data was presented which demonstrated that the universe is expanding. Even then, many physicists refused to accept that the universe had a beginning. However, the big-bang theory of the start of the universe made predictions as to the current temperature associated with the radiation originally produced in the early universe. Those predictions were subsequently verified by the experimental measurement of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Only then did the physics community accept the reality of an origin to the universe.

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  25. To Rabbi Slifkin:

    Moshe, that's really not an accurate description of the Cambrian explosion. But this is not the forum for that discussion.

    That's how I remember hearing it described by Simon Conway Morris - I'll be able to give a better report on his opinion when I finish his book on the subject.

    I bring up the issue because you claimed that Common Descent is "well established very well grounded and will not ever be overturned". I'm just pointing out that even if that is true, I think it is only true up to the Cambrian.


    "Besides, if you want to argue that there is common descent back to then, but not further, then you're occupying a very lonely position - neither scientists nor creationists will agree with you!"

    At this point I'm not arguing for or against common descent, just that it doesn't seem to be able to get past the Cambrian.

    In terms of a lonely position - I'm happy to be lonely :). I'm not basing my opinions on who agrees with me, but on an attempt to rigorously study and think about the relevant material.

    If you can show that there is a realistic, compelling explanation for the Cambrian that works with Common Descent, I'm happy to take a look at it. Stating that no one agrees with me (assuming that's true) is not a reason to believe that such an explanation does or can exist.

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  26. Garnel Ironheart said..To wit: until now the axiom was that nothing can travel faster than light.
    robert said... That measurement affects the state of the second particle. Effectively, some kind of "information" has traveled instantaneously from point A to point B, ..
    Shlomo said..I was under the impression that all general relativity stated was that nothing could travel..

    Actually, all sorts of things may go faster than light without violating any commonly accepted physical laws. Off the top of my head I can think of at least six instances– two of which were already mentioned here by posters; entanglement and tachyons. What they all have in common however is that none of them, including entanglement which indeed may allow an action taken on one side of the galaxy to instantaneously cause a physical response on the other side of the galaxy, may be used to transmit “information”. i.e. there is no way to use them to transmit a signal faster than light. This distinction is an evolution in understanding from the early and even today, only the more careful physicists accurately describe relativity as incompatible with transmitting information faster that light (or for that matter, any other zero mass particle all of which travel at light speed).

    Now tachyons are usually associated with a new particle, not some known particle (not that the neutrino rest mass, if it has one, is that well known), but frankly I don’t see that as much of a problem. Relativity (and that’s the special theory, not just general relativity which is a separate theory of gravity) doesn’t imply that thingys can’t go faster than light, only that something going slower can never be pushed hard enough to increase its speed to exceed light speed. But there’s no problem (although some weirdness, e.g. imaginary mass) if a particle were born going that fast.

    If I had to bet however I’d concur with the sentiment: Y. Aharon said... .. I would place my money on the side of an error in the Italian measurement..

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  27. To Y. Aharon,

    I agree that the Big Bang theory fits in (somewhat) with your original description. I'm just not sure how common that model for the advancement of science (or, as you noted, physics) is.

    It sounds more like what Kuhn refers to as normal science - the progression of science as it works within a given model. However, when there is a paradigm shift, things seem to work rather differently.

    My main point is that science doesn't always progress in a neat, systematic, and/or rational fashion. There are many discoveries that happen by mistake, by relative unknowns and/or are fought tooth and nail.

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  28. Science does not have a list of what will not be overturned. It can't by definition. It is a method, not a result. We have our own lists. The problem with the cartoon in the post is that it seems to imply scientists could not care less about the outcome of any theory. A person truly lacking any motivation to accept one thing over another is lacking a method of distinguishing between ideas (and also maybe very boring). That's not science. That's just seeing a mass of data. No thought for that and no science either. The fact is scientists are not ho hum about something traveling faster than the speed of light. In addition to the fact it contradicts the theory of Relativity, it also implies another problem illustrated by the following old limerick:"There was a young lady named Bright,
    Who traveled much faster than light.

    She set out one day,
    In the relative way,

    and returned on the previous night."

    That however does not bother me as why should we be given any favors to indulge our prejudices.

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  29. Nachum wrote:

    "I remember asking a very charedi rebbe of mine back in elementary school how, if the mabul overturned the whole world- even underground- we could say that Adam and Chava were buried in Me'arat HaMachpela. He took me aside and very quietly told me that the mabul didn't affect Eretz Yisrael.

    That was an eye opener."

    What exactly opened your eyes Nachum? Also, I'm not sure why your "chareidi" rebbi had to take you aside and "very quietly" reveal the deep dark secret to you. Sounds very overly inspirational to me for something which is stated openly in Chazal (Zevachim 113b). Oh, by the way, this ma'amar chazal was written two thousand years ago, long before anyone even thought of contesting a world-wide flood. In fact, if it weren't for Chazal, it would be impossible to say such a thing as the Torah is mashma that the entire world was inundated.

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  30. Mechy has it right.

    Back in high school, we examined Einstein's equations. If an object would travel faster than light, the equations would end up producing "imaginary" numbers - taking the square root of negative numbers. This may mean that such speeds are impossible, but it may also simply mean that this particular set of equations is insufficient to describe what happens at those speeds.

    So far, experiments (mostly involving particle accelerators) have shown the relativistic equations to be quite solid, but a preponderance of evidence is not the same as proof.

    In other words, the claim that nothing can be accelerated to (and beyond) light speeds is solid, but it is based on logical extrapolations of today's equations and current observations. That is strong, but it's not proof.

    If we discover a circumstance that will allow faster-than-light travel, it won't unravel all of physics. All of our lower-speed observations don't automatically become wrong. It simply means that new theories will have to be developed to accommodate the new data.

    This is just like what happened with Newton's laws. Relativity didn't make them "wrong". They remain quite accurate and useful for objects moving at lower speeds. We still teach them in school, but now we make a point of mentioning the limits of their usefulness.

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  31. Nachum writes: "(My teacher) took me aside and very quietly told me that the mabul didn't affect Eretz Yisrael. That was an eye opener."

    After reading http://www.shemayisrael.com/dafyomi2/zevachim/insites/zv-dt-113.htm , can you tell me what was so eye-opening about your teacher's response?

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  32. Rabbi Slifkin it's interesting you didn't include Climate Change in your list. That should be an example of something you have no great passion for but still have expressed support for because it ostensibly is the majority view.

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  33. “We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here” said the bartender.

    A neutrino walks into a bar.

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  34. Those not scientifically-literate in physics should be more circumspect with regard to the character and development physics. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Einsteinian Relativity or Quantum Entanglement (where Einstein's incisive analysis was also prescient), suffice to say:

    1. Superluminal(faster than light in "empty space")motion is NOT forbidden by Einsteinian Special Relativity. In special relativity, the speed of light in "a vacuum" is a cosmic speed limit - a boundary that cannot be crossed. But a boundary can , in principle, have two sides. So if something starts off slower than the speed of light, it can't cross the speed limit to move faster than light. But if some other thing is faster than the speed of light, then it cannot slow down to slower than the speed of light (since this would involve violating the cosmic speed boundary from above).
    2. Quantum Entanglement does NOT involve superluminal signalling between at least two distinct objects separated in space. Quantum mechanics (so far anyways) does NOT support the naive and wrong physical picture of quantum entanglement BEFORE DETECTION/MEASUREMENT as signalling between at least two distinct entities.
    3. Strangely, those "enlightened" who express skepticism and possibly disbelief in relying on physical "theory" are not not averse to putting their very lives in the hand of technology that is a direct derivative of the physical theories they reject or demean. What sense does it make to "reject science" yet get on an airplane or take an MRI test.
    4. Whatever the eventual outcome of the current hyped-up brouhaha about superluminal particles {with quite a few steadily-brilliant Nobel Laureates betting it won't pan ou}),those whose exposure to Einstein's special and general relativity is limited to the amazingly accurate "black box" functioning of their cell-phones ought not to needlessly speculate or pontificate.
    Shana Tova.

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  35. Just to keep the news updated:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-502223_162-57327392/2nd-test-affirms-faster-than-light-particles/

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  36. Err, I need to update further: http://www.newsdaily.com/stories/tre7aj0zx-us-neutrinos/ You'll see why.

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  37. And the latest... http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/02/faster-than-light-neutrino-measurement-has-two-possible-errors.html

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