Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hoodbhoy on Neutrinos and Angels

by Salman Hameed

This was published in Pakistan Tribune. This is familiar territory for Pervez. He has been calling out on the pseudoscience of finding science in the Qur'an for over two decades. The real problem is that some of the proponents have scientific degrees - and that is a scary thought. This business of I'jaz, I think, is one of the most damaging pseudoscience prevalent in the Muslim world. It is not that other cultures and religions don't have their own versions (just see the popularity of The Bible Code books in the US). But at least there already exists a large base of scientists in the US - and 99% of those don't subscribe to this nonsense (you can always find occasional oddballs: for example, see Tipler and his Pseudoscience). I hope budding scientists in Pakistan (or anywhere for that matter) don't fall for the pseudoscience of I'jaz. Nidhal and I have also written about it: You can read Nidhal's post Critiquing I'jaz - The Claim of Scientific Miracles in the Qur'an, and my post On the futility of finding science in the Qur'an and Other Scriptures

Here is Pervez on Neutrinos and Angels:

The news from CERN was stunning: the European nuclear science laboratory had just discovered (September 2011) that particles known as neutrinos — called so because they are neutral and carry no charge — habitually travel a little bit faster than light. This threatened to shake the very foundations of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which had laid the basis for the atomic bomb, nuclear energy, and most of modern day physics. Relativity theory starts from the postulate that the speed of light is the absolute maximum that anything can travel at. 
Pakistanis are generally unmoved by developments in the world of science. But this time the excitement was palpable. A TV channel called me up, requesting an interview. Fine, I said, specifying the time when I would be available. The producer was profoundly apologetic: this was exactly when they would be interviewing Dr Zakir Naik, an Islamic scholar who frequently pontificates on issues of science and religion. Would I therefore please give another time? Since the good doctor’s claim to fame is his understanding of religious texts rather than of physics, I declined and do not know what transpired subsequently.
Speed of light issues have often moved sections of religious people in rather strange ways. 
Way back in 1973, as a young physics lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, I had been fascinated by the calculation done by the head of our department. Seeking the grand synthesis of science and faith, this pious gentleman — who left on his final journey last month — had published calculations that proved Heaven (jannat) was running away from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His reasoning centred around a particular verse of the Holy Quran that states worship on the night of Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Revelation) is equivalent to a thousand nights of ordinary worship. Indeed, if you input the factor of 1,000 into Einstein’s famous formula for time dilatation, this yields a number: one centimeter per second less than the speed of light! 
These days the internet groans under the weight of claims that the Holy Quran had specified the speed of light 1400 years ago. Dr Mansour Hassab El Naby, said to be a physicist from Egypt, announces that according to his Quranic calculations, this speed is 299,792.5 kilometres per second. He even gives error bars! Another video gives a still more precise figure of 299792.458 km/sec. Given the unrestrained leaps of logic made by the authors, it is not surprising that they all arrive at more or less the same numbers. 
Interested readers may also wish to visit an intricately-designed website that has clocked up over 750,000 visitors so far. Chockful of mathematical formulae, diagrams, and pictures, it starts from the premise that “angels are low density creatures” taking orders from a “Preserved Tablet” and says “the speed at which they commute to and from this Tablet turned out to be the known speed of light”. To enhance the visual impact, the website has a Java applet showing a white Caucasian scientist who moves his eyes up, down, and around in wondrous rapture. While doing so he sonorously pronounces — in what sounds like an Australian accent to me — that the extra space-time dimensions demanded by the physics of string theory are exactly those predicted in the Quran. The final conclusion: “Einstein’s theory of General Relativity proves the Quran right”. 
Well, there’s a huge problem here! No scientist is sure that General Relativity (GR) is absolutely correct. In fact, the phrase “absolutely correct” does not belong to the lexicon of any science, even one as well developed as physics. Excellent as GR is — with hundreds of careful tests — physicists are pretty sure that there are places, such as at the edge of a black hole, where GR simply has to fail. Placing the absolute correctness of Allah’s Word on the knife-edge of an imperfect theory is pretty dicey. 
Certainly, no working scientist takes seriously any of stuff on Islamic science websites. In spite of their wonderful graphics and scientific appearance, they are wholly unscientific. Science comes from persistently and patiently checking hypotheses, building upon earlier discoveries and knowledge, and systematically sifting out all which cannot pass stringent tests of logic and observation. For example, experiments at CERN consume the working lives of some of the most brilliant people on earth, require billions of dollars of equipment, and stretch human capacities and ingenuity to the limit. When real scientists eventually publish a result, it comes from solid evidence and not from uncontrolled spurts of imagination and strident assertions of faith. 
Returning to neutrinos: today we do not know if the results from CERN on faster-than-light neutrinos are actually correct. Like most other particle physicists, I am sceptical. Explanations will surely be forthcoming once similar experiments are done in other laboratories; time will tell. But right or wrong, this is just another interesting puzzle for physicists to mull over. With deep foundations, the edifice of science has survived bigger earthquakes. 
On the other hand, if the CERN results are right, “Islamic scientists” like Dr Naby would need to do much explaining. High above in the heavens, neutrinos would easily out-chase angels — the messengers of Allah — because, if Islamic websites are to be believed, angels are limited by the speed of light. So does that mean these naughty neutrinos are outside of God’s control? Using a holy text as a physics book makes little sense. But, sadly, it is all too common. 
Worried by the cancerous growth of claptrap masquerading as science, the late Carl Sagan, one of my heroes, spoke to Bible Belt Americans with matchless eloquence:
“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonise about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us — then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.” 
Pakistanis need to listen again, and yet again to this. Sagan is also speaking to us.
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14 comments:

Aurangzeb said...

This has been going on for a while unfortunately. I used to have an edition of such a book (Dou Quran) on Ijaz (in Urdu) from 1930 which tried to do the same thing but most of the theories in that book have been discarded now. I think a historical overview of this literature would be quite useful.

Saif said...

Great article by Mr. Pervez Hoodbhoy! Science and religion should be kept separate.

It really makes me facepalm whenever I see someone trying to find a "miracle" in the Quran. Just see http://miraclesofthequran.com/scientific_index.html (WARNING: loads of bullshit incoming) ;).

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't jump over to any conclusion with the CERN's neutrino experiment. The constant 'c' has, and always will, stand the test of time, like the second law of thermodynamics. If you really 'find' something travelling faster than light in some 'marvellous' experiment, better check where you are bunging up things in the whole picture.

Wormhole199 said...

But Huudbhoy made a mistake in his frame of reference, and he kept deleting our posts at the Tribune.

The error at CERN turned out to be from the frame of reference. The CERN comparison was made in a rotating frame (non-inertial). But 299792.458 km/sec is the speed of light in local inertial frames (not in all frames as Hoodbhoy and his students insist on). So when we make the comparison in a local inertial frame we find that neutrinos NEVER traveled faster than light. Since Earth is spinning with respect to stars then it is a non-inertial frame. However the frame of the GPS satellite is an almost inertial frame. When the motion of this frame is taken into account then the neutrinos in this frame NEVER exceeded the speed of light.
This result is already published.
For physicists: http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.2685 Download PDF: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1110.2685v4

For laymen: http://www.universetoday.com/89933/special-relativity-may-answer-faster-than-light-neutrino-mystery/

So sorry no super-luminary travel for neutrinos and Hoodbhoy's frame of reference is invalid for CERN or speed of light in Quran (he used the same non-inertial frame).

Wormhole199 said...

We have a natural experiment which further asserts that the result at CERN is just an error in the frame of reference:
In 1987 a supernova (exploding star) was detected. We received the neutrinos from the supernova however we received the visible light from the same supernova 3 hours later. However in 1987 nobody claimed that neutrinos were traveling faster than light, even though they arrived 3 hours before light. Why not? Because the neutrinos were emitted from the center of the exploding star and they needed 2.5 seconds to reach the surface of the star (traveled unimpeded all the way). However visible light was emitted when the shockwave arrived to the outer surface. It took 3 hours for the shockwave to travel from the center of the star to the surface; then light was emitted from the outer surface. So neutrinos practically had 3 hours head start. If the frame of reference today at CERN is correct then in 1987 the difference in arrival times should have been 3.5 days, not 3 hours.

http://www.universetoday.com/89407/particle-physics-and-faster-than-light-neutrinos-discuss/

So again no super-luminary travel for neutrinos; it is just an error in the frame of reference. So Hoodbhoy's frame of reference is invalid for CERN or speed of light in Quran (he used the same non-inertial frame).

Asad M said...

@Wormhole199: I don’t think Hoodbhoy would even be reading your posts on Tribune. If your post is too long and with website links then it’d go in moderation and the moderator would decide to publish or not after reading.

Prof. Hoodbhoy wrote in the article that he was ‘skeptical’ (like everyone else) about CERN’s results on neutrinos and never claimed that neutrinos actually travelled faster than light speed. However, you did not respond to his argument that General Relativity fails in certain situations (e.g. as at the edge of a black hole), is not a complete theory, in short it’s not very wise to use science to prove that Islam is right.

Wormhole199 said...

Correction: If the frame of reference today at CERN is correct then in SN 1987A the difference in arrival times should have been 3.5 years, not 3 hours.

See video at 7:45:
http://www.universetoday.com/89407/particle-physics-and-faster-than-light-neutrinos-discuss/

Wormhole199 said...

@Asad M "However, you did not respond to his argument that General Relativity fails in certain situations (e.g. as at the edge of a black hole), is not a complete theory..." General Relativity fails at the singularity, not at the edge of a blackhole as he claims. There is nothing special about the event horizon, you can cross it. Actually with wormholes (Einstein-Rosen Bridge) you can cross it and appear in another galaxy. So GR doesn't fail at the edge of a blackhole as he claims. We know this from Einstein himself. But it seems Hoodbhoy is anti-GR. Well all parts of General Relativity were individually verified (except wormholes). If he is really anti-GR then he belongs to a minority of physicists who still live in denial.

Asad M said...

@Wormhole199: Wouldn’t argue with you on event horizon but may be Hoodbhoy is referring to what happens ‘beyond’ the event horizon and towards the centre of a black hole (at singularity) where the spacetime curvature becomes infinite and GR fails. Well, you should be right on Wormholes, it’s your nick too :)

Hoodbhoy surely isn’t anti-GR and isn’t denying GR at all; he’s just saying that it is wrong to say that any scientific theory is absolutely correct even one as robust and proven as GR. Again, you seem to be missing the whole point of his argument, which basically is that it is not good science to prove the Quran by science or vice-versa.

Wormhole199 said...

@Asad M
Still, from the event horizon and inwards, Hoodbhoy declares GR's failure where in reality it was never tested.

AC said...

For me the heart of the matter is the following paragraph. Intelligent Pakistanis can gain much by internalizing what Hoodbhoy is saying here:

Science comes from persistently and patiently checking hypotheses, building upon earlier discoveries and knowledge, and systematically sifting out all which cannot pass stringent tests of logic and observation. For example, experiments at CERN consume the working lives of some of the most brilliant people on earth, require billions of dollars of equipment, and stretch human capacities and ingenuity to the limit. When real scientists eventually publish a result, it comes from solid evidence and not from uncontrolled spurts of imagination and strident assertions of faith.

Anonymous said...

Well my understanding about black holes is that this phenomenon itself is what general theory of relativity is all about. How does it 'fail' at black hole, rather to me it seems the other way round? Shall read more on it. The author can tell more about this.

Shafiq.Irfan said...

Excellent Article. I totally agree with the essence.

Quran has two kind of Verses (Ayats): (i) with clear meanings to present the case of religion and (ii) not so clear examples where sometime science is involved COINCIDENTALLY.

We have to accept that Quran is the book of guidance (in terms of ISLAM) and not a book of Science.

Now problem with majority of Muslims is that they falsely assume that as Quran is God's book so it should have every information in it. On this man-made false assumption they try to link some not-so-clear verses with modern science and in doing so they damage the reputation of religion instead of helping it.

Wormhole199 said...

An independent measurement by ICARUS measured the neutrino’s velocity to be no faster than the speed of light. So CERN's Research Director issued a retraction: "The evidence is beginning to point towards the OPERA result being an artifact of the measurement..." See Universe Today: http://www.universetoday.com/94203/neutrinos-obey-the-speed-limit-after-all/

So sorry Hoodboy, no super-luminary travel for neutrinos. This also means that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity won all its battles. If Hoodboy still won't concede to GR then let him cower in denial.

There is no contradiction between the Quran and GR; so the only thing that Hoodboy could still criticize is the voice of our narrator.