Sunday, June 29, 2014

Franson's "breakthrough" concerning the speed of light

Increasingly pathetic crackpot papers are being promoted by the outlets calling themselves "scientific media" at an increasing frequency that has probably surpassed the value of "one crackpot paper per day" a long time ago.

In recent days, tons of journalists got obsessed with the theme that "the speed of light might be wrong". The places where you could read this stuff included The Daily Mail and Pakistan's The Nation claiming that Einstein was wrong all along in the very title, The Huffington Post, The Financial Express, Science Alert, and dozens of others.

Most shockingly, there is a website called The Physics arXiv Blog that praises this stuff as well and the wording looks similar to the "real" Physics arXiv Blog although I can't find it there.

A minute is enough to find out what these remarkable articles are based upon. They are based upon a 2011 crackpot hep-ph preprint
Apparent Correction to the Speed of Light in a Gravitational Potential
by James Franson, a surfer dude wannabe from Baltimore. (As you expect, he doesn't know any \(\rm\TeX\).) Right now, this 3-years-old viXra-style text got published in a "New Journal of Physics". Some of the "science media" are impressed by the claim that this journal is "peer-reviewed", apparently not realizing that the reviewers are James Franson's peers, i.e. other hardcore cranks.

The preprint has exactly one citation after these 3 years, from a paper by another crackpot called Parthasarathy who believed (and "justified") that the OPERA superluminal claims were right and who worked out one self-citation by a "paper" which has zero. None of the journalists seem to care about this "feedback" and I guess that a vast majority of them haven't even looked or haven't understood the concept of the citation.

At any rate, Franson's paper is an uninterrupted stream of nonsense. It's not a paper with several bugs at several places. It's a paper whose almost every sentence shows that the author is completely ignorant about basic physics.

He talks about "global reference frames" in relativity, apparently missing that the key point of relativity (and the reason behind its name) is that almost all quantities must be expressed relatively to a particular frame and no frame is better than others.

He says that the gravitational potential is "gauge-invariant" although it certainly isn't gauge-invariant (i.e. invariant under diffeomorphisms) in GR. He says that gravitational fields are not gauge-invariant even though some aspects of gravitational fields (like invariants constructed from the Riemann tensor) are gauge-invariant.

The journalists "conclude" that the speed of light isn't or wasn't 299,792,458 m/s even though one meter is currently defined in such a way that it's guaranteed that the speed of light, if it's defined at all, is equal to this constant. Saying that the speed of light isn't 299,792,458 m/s is as tautologically false as if you define "two" as "one plus one" and then you claim that it isn't equal to "one plus one". It just can't happen. You're shown to be a complete imbecile if you write similar things, and most of those journalists do.

If the neutrinos coming from the Supernova 1987a discussed in the paper were "really" arriving faster than the photons, and if it were because they are intrinsically faster (and not because they were created earlier), and be sure that this "if" cannot be realized in the real world, then it would mean that the neutrinos' speed was higher than 299,792,458 m/s but the photons's speed was by definition 299,792,458 m/s.

Franson uses general relativity as a justification and denies all of its principles at the same moment. He completely incorrectly claims that all laws derivable from GR must contradict quantum mechanics. In reality, the principles of GR and QM are compatible and smoothly reconciled by string theory but even with methods and rules much more straightforward than string theory, one may combine GR and QM in a way that remains consistent even for vastly more detailed questions that Franson could even dream to address. And he develops some nonsensical way to argue that loop processes add corrections of order the fine-structure constant, \(\alpha\), to the speed of light. It's impossible because the Lorentz invariance guaranteeing the fixed and universal speed of light is required even at the quantum level and it is used to constrain the theory. There are just no loop corrections to the speed of light. If the Lorentz invariance could break by generic processes at the one-loop level, it would be meaningless to talk about the invariance in the first place.

In some crazy hypothetical world, one could talk about neutrinos that are faster than photons – this "what if" speculation is going back to the OPERA quagmire etc. – but that would simply mean that relativity is shown to be wrong and a new theory (with new principles approximately as constraining as those of relativity) would have to be written down. None of the chaotic quasi-arguments randomly combining some buzzwords from relativity with a complete denial of relativity – none of the verbal junk that Franson's paper is composed of – could ever replace this process of building a new theory.

I need to stop because it makes no sense to try to "correct" the paper. If you erase every sentence that is at least 50% wrong, nothing would be left from the paper. Every sentence on these 25 pages is at least partially wrong, usually at a very basic conceptual level, and to correct this whole paper meaningfully would mean to write 250 pages of a pedagogic text which would be utterly useless because the people who are not stunned by the stupidity of Franson's text (understanding 5% of Franson's staggering errors must be enough) just can't understand any physics even if you explain it 10 times more slowly. So it would be a case of pearls thrown to the swines.

The journalists who are promoting this stuff were clearly not taught by their mothers to avoid eating poops. It's been a grave mistake that they were allowed by these mothers to leave their baby beds and to throw away the pacifiers. But the celebration of similar – and indeed, increasingly idiotic – material is becoming so frequent and omnipresent that one is fighting windmills if he wants to fix the trend. The broader public's convergence towards idiocracy is unstoppable and it will arrive about 20 times earlier than the science-fiction movie envisioned.

At the same moment, lots of wonderful things are happening in genuine, legitimate physics, see e.g. the list of talks at Strings 2014. The journalists make no effort whatsover to understand or present these things.


  1. Time to go back to nun school where they have a big yard stick to enforce the whole 9 yards of curiculem.

    Or if you are from the EU a slightly smaller meter stick used to meter out discipline.

    Eg brukar begge stokane ein for kvar hand.

  2. Hmm, perhaps Franson doesnt't know that you can slow light to a standstill :)
    I wonder if New Journal of Physics will publish my paper
    on the speed of flying pigs.

  3. It is probably a blessing that the dilettantic popular science channels leave the Strings2014 conference alone ...

    But maybe Prof. Ginsparg should now think about a way to keep such things out of the ArXiv ...? The bad stuff they already have could be migrated to ViXra ...

    BTW this is not the first time I hear about nonsense appearing in this dubious New European Physics journal (or however it is called)...

  4. The upper limit is the speed of bacon. Which is == temperature of bacon which is about root 2 of the speed of sound.

    What is the lower limit???

  5. Svik,

    There's an English yard (there exists no other). It's 3 feet long. That's 36 inches to you. At 2.54 cm to the inch, that makes it—hang on, I need to use my toes as well, give me a second or two to get my socks off—okay, 0.9144 metres.

    The yard is shorter than the metre. I knew it but I needed to check. :)

    TOP TIP: a few 4-inch nails in your yard stick improves its performance in the discipline stakes besides giving it the edge on the metre.

  6. And still there are possible experiments to do in the lab.

    According to Einstein’s relativity theory, is the speed of light for every observer the same in all reference frames.
    However, there seem to be incidental differences in the lightspeed if we observe the outliers of GPS satellite to CHAMP satellite distance measurements of 180m.
    At the same time in the literature I found tiny structural but characteristic unexplained irregularities in Planetary radar-pulse reflection measurements, made by I.I. Shapiro in 1964, between the Earth and Venus.
    Both observations support the idea of the existence of ellipsoidal lightspeed extinction (or vacuum adaptation) volumes around massive objects like the earth.
    Such a volume I will call LASOF or Local Asymmetric Oscillating Vacuum Frame.
    Other historic lightspeed experiments support the idea that all objects with mass are equipped with some extinction volume.
    As a consequence I propose new triangular trajectory lightspeed comparison experiments between the earth and dual satellites or dual balloons and even in the laboratory to support these lightspeed extinction and adaptation ideas.

    see: Experiments to determine the mass related Lightspeed extinction volume around the Earth and around spinning objects in the Lab.

  7. "the Lorentz invariance guaranteeing the fixed and universal speed of light is required even at the quantum level and it is used to constrain the theory"

    Doesn't this mean that the constancy of the speed of light, than which nothing goes faster, are not two isolated facts but rather are integral to the whole structure of modern physics, including most especially quantum mechanics? That's one of the things I have gathered from reading your blog over the years, and it is what I tell my layman friends when any of them raises the question. In other words, I say, "Impossible!"

  8. Well at least somebody is awake!!!!!

    On this side of the pond the yard stick is wider thicker and heavier and much more effective than the the me is better meter stick.

  9. Actually an electron jumps to the higher state in an instant. Breaking the speed limit by a lot.

  10. Faith-based engineering guarantees a test of faith. Enjoy my favorite disproof of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The turd hides within the first two sentences. Will you step in it?

    A hermetically isolated hard vacuum envelope contains two closely spaced but not touching, in-register and parallel, electrically conductive plates having micro-spiked inner surfaces. They are connected with a wire, perhaps containing a dissipative load (small motor). One plate has a large vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., osmium at 5.93 eV). The other plate has a small vacuum work function material inner surface (e.g., n-doped diamond "carbon nitride" at 0.1 eV). Above 0 kelvin, spontaneous cold cathode emission runs the closed isolated system. Emitted electrons continuously fall down the 5.8 volt potential gradient. Evaporation from carbon nitride cools that plate. Accelerated collision onto osmium warms that plate. Round and round. The plates never come into thermal equilibrium when electrically shorted. The motor runs forever.

  11. uh so how do you know it's instant if you can't measure it?

  12. Not really. All higher states have a width and a probability related to them. The adverb "immediately" is not applicable because t=0 cannot be defined due to this probabilistic nature.

  13. You should really ask the Greek physist Anna v above.

    Electrons only exist in the atoms at fixed energy levels thus will only be in one orbit or the other bit nowhere in between thus the transition is instantaneous. This was the early conclusion and dilema or Bohr and company.

    If not electrons should spiral in as they loose energy.

  14. It is also very important to recognize that photons don't move slower than stand-still. ;-^

  15. "At the same moment, lots of wonderful things are happening in genuine, legitimate physics see e.g. the list of talks at Strings 2014."

    Yes, another example at the 37th International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in Valencia from 2 to 9 July 2014:

  16. Webster Tarpley stated that the Brits had fore-knowledge,
    indicating conspiracy. Cause of wars is economic "The Rothschilds & The Two World Wars - YouTube"

  17. The speed of light is wrong, that is why journalists walk in darkness.

  18. You are missing that the states of well-defined energy are just a basis
    of the Hilbert space, they are not the full set of physical states.
    There's plenty of other states available which can be written as
    superpositions of energy eigenstates. In an introduction to
    time-dependent perturbation theory you will see how the physical state
    of the electron can change smoothly due to a perturbation of the

    The transition is definitely not instantaneous, otherwise spectral lines could not be so sharp, for example.

  19. What does instantaneous mean in all frames of reference if there is spatial separation between orbits, which themselves are only probabilistic densities?

  20. The fact that gluons also move at the speed of light suggests the phrase 'speed of light' is misleading. Perhaps 'conversion factor from time units to spatial units' is better, then choose c=1 for convenience.

  21. In order to take relativity fully into account you need to step up to quantum field theory, i.e. QED in this case. This is not needed to counter the original argument, however: The reasoning that due to the discreetness of the energy levels the electron's state must change discontinuously is wrong. One would make the same mistake with the argument: The independent spatial directions are discreet (3), thus an object can only rotate in instantaneous jolts of 90 degrees. Obviously continuous rotations are possible and in the Hilbert space of QM the situation is mathematically analogous (roughly replacing directions with physical states and rotations with unitary transformations).

  22. Slightly off topic but here is an interesting article on strings by Nobel prize winning physicist David politzer ;) :

  23. Dear Lubos!

    The paper is indeed appalling and its publication is indicative for the lack of quality for such 'open access' journals. And the media generated by this thing is a disgrace. However the objections you state, while technically correct, aren't really to the point: while there are no "global reference frames" in GR the problem at hand is for the (nearly) static gravitational field, so the frame in which the field is static is definitely preferred. And to preserve the notion of gravitational potential we must restrict ourselves to small diffeomorphisms, which will leave it invariant in first approximation.

    And all of these are not the point. The effect is certainly there: the speed of light does vary because of the gravitational interactions its just the calculations in the paper that are wrong. Think about it yourself: photon travels through the EM interacting matter and its speed v(k) is dependent on k. Now, the photon travels through matter which interacts only gravitationally: there would be dependence of v(k) on k, it would be there in the classical limit, it will appear in one loop. But obviously, the time delay which occurs because of it would be many orders of magnitude smaller than corresponding EM delay.

    If I would try to reanimate calculations in the paper I would take the eq (18) from it as is and just change interpretation: Phi_G is not a gravitational potential but instead its Fourier component Phi_G (k). That way it could be expressed as 'graininess' of matter distribution on length scales of 1/k and this quantity is invariant for diffeomorphisms which are smooth on such scales. Of course this way the delay would depends of k and would be immeasurably small.

  24. In that case it should be possible to calculate the time needed to move to a lower orbit. The distance is fixed and thus the average speed. What would that be??

    The spectral lines are sharp as they are set by the different fixed orbit energies released. Or has this changed???

  25. "Why did you English give on to the rubenite french?"

    Je ne comprends pas. Erklären, bitte.

  26. Actually, Prince Franz hated the Serbs, and wanted them destroyed. The only reason he was in Sarajevo at that time was that the A-H army had just finished up their summer maneuvers in Bosnia, and Franz wanted to 'show the colors' and demonstrate Austro-Hungarian supremacy and 'teach the Serbs a lesson'. He was deliberately provocative and he knew he was going to be pissing people off.

  27. a friendly utlimatum? c'mon, dude. did you really leave all the truth behind when you got out of physics?

  28. There are some tiny effects of a vaguely similar sort whose values have nothing to do with the calculations in the paper and whose interpretation is really different . What else to say? Every effect is there unless strictly prohibited - this case is borderline - but physics *must* be concerned with calculating or estimating these effects right, at least as order-of-magnitude estimates, otherwise it would be completely wrong or vacuous.

  29. As recently reported on this blog, Prof Knížák, the top Czech artist, said that all journalists are wrong about everything. Indeed everybody is wrong about something or other most of the time. Lets see, most journalists think that 911 was perpetrated by Osama bin Laden. They're wrong for sure but its no big deal. Most physicists think that flying saucers do not exist. They're wrong too but why worry about it. The world goes on whether the inflation of the big bang produced the politically correct waves in the space-time continuum or not. Its just another day, another minor or major storm in the textbook of life.

  30. He should have left the Serbs alone. Then maybe w.w. 1 would have been delayed until some other excuse was found.