Saturday, 29 October 2011

The speed of science

by Amy (originally published in Socialist Review Nov 2011)

The scientific world has been shaken by developments in the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tracking Apparatus) collaboration. Researchers from over 48 different institutions across the world have recorded neutrinos travelling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light in a vacuum between a source and a detector.

This finding could overturn one of the most fundamental laws in modern physics - that nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Neutrinos are fundamental particles with a very small mass, and are electrically neutral, meaning they rarely interact with other matter. Billions of neutrinos pass through the Earth every second. The majority of neutrinos that pass through the Earth are generated in the sun, but they can also form from the decay of radioactive elements such as U-238, found in nuclear reactors, supernovas, and, as happened in the OPERA experiment, particle accelerators.

Using a detector situated 1400m underground in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, the OPERA experiment was designed to study a beam of neutrinos produced 731km away at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland. The results appear to be accurate. Neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light have been recorded for more than 16,000 events in the last two years. The OPERA collaboration seem confident in their results thanks, in part, to new methods using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to synchronise the clocks at CERN and Gran Sasso, and also by using GPS to get an accurate measurement for the distance between the source of the neutrinos and the detector.

Previous experiments which have attempted to find particles travelling faster than the speed of light have come away empty-handed. A pulse of neutrinos generated in a nearby supernova (exploding star), and the flash of light seen from the supernova, for example, arrived within hours of each other. If all neutrinos can achieve faster than light speeds then the neutrino pulse should have arrived years before the flash of light. Since the results were announced in September many have sought to explain the observations or find fault with the method used by the OPERA group. Whether the clocks at the source and the detector have been synchronised correctly is a key issue. One suggestion is that gravitational pull at CERN is stronger than at Gran Sasso, meaning, according to Einstein's general theory of relativity, clocks at CERN would run slower than in Italy.

Many more ideas are likely to surface in the coming months. The law that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, the cornerstone of Einstein's theory of relativity, is crucial for most physics developed since 1905. If it is found that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light, this would force us to rethink many areas of science. Changes in science, both in what we know, and in how science is done, occur for three main reasons. One is changes to the technology available to investigate problems. The OPERA experiment used more accurate methods of measuring time and distance than have been available in the past, so it may mean that this is the first opportunity we have had to measure neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light.

Secondly, who controls technology is important - both in how it gets used and whether it gets developed in the first place. The potential for a new technology to improve the world, for example renewable energy, doesn't necessarily mean that it is developed, if, for instance, it isn't in the interests of capital to do so.

Finally, the drive to gain a better understanding of the world can also bring about changes to science. This means going beyond the dominant ideas at the time, and coming up with new theories that may not immediately be apparent. To explain the observations seen in the OPERA experiment may mean rethinking what we currently understand. And new theories may have to be developed if what we thought to be the laws that govern the way the universe works are found to be broken on some occasions.

Whether this latest result will lead to a rewriting of physics or is just due to an overlooked factor is currently unknown. It does, however, give us a useful reminder that our understanding of the physical world is not complete and that we should not be afraid of new discoveries which may completely overturn what we currently know.

(and a joke...."we don't serve neutrinos here", a neutrino walks into a bar)

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Why Bin Veolia?

by Owen

Between 21st and 24th October the Cambridge University Students’ Union(CUSU) will be asking all its members – you are included – to vote in a referendum on the question: ‘Should CUSU call upon the University to cancel its contract with Veolia?’

Why? What is Veolia? What is its relationship to the University of Cambridge? Why should students care about this? Veolia is a French multinational which the University employs to conduct its waste disposal. The contract runs out in 2012. A few thousand miles away – a world away, in fact, from the cloistered bubble which we know and inhabit – Veolia is responsible for extending the infrastructure of occupation in the occupied Palestinian territories. The work they do for the state of Israel sets them at odds with the Fourth Geneva convention, articles 49 and 53, as well as Hague Conventions 1897 and 1907. The UN Security Council resolution 465, meanwhile, “calls upon all states not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories.” Veolia is doing more than providing assistance; they are actively facilitating the settlements’ expansion.

Veolia was a lead partner in the Citypass consortium which constructed the Jerusalem Light Railway, specifically linking illegal settlements in East Jerusalem with West Jerusalem, as well as the illegal Ma’ale Adumim settlement in the West Bank. Veolia will also assist in running the Jerusalem Light Railway and its discriminatory operational recruitment campaign excludes Palestinians by requiring candidates to speak Hebrew as mother-tongue.

I do not wish to offer a history lecture. I want to persuade you that boycotting Veolia – by calling upon the University to cancel its contract – is the right thing to do. Boycotting is tactic that works. It was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa. You know, apartheid: where a states systemically discriminates against a section of its population on ethnic and racial grounds. When companies began to see their profit margins heading southwards as a result of boycott activity, they quickly realised it made sense to get out of South Africa. Veolia has already lost significant waste disposal contracts after vigorous local campaigns for exclusion: councils in Edinburgh, Richmond, Portsmouth, Winchester & East Hants, Ealing, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Stockholm, Melbourne and Dublin have all boycotted Veolia.The full list of campaign successes can be found here.

‘But they run buses and trains: that’s hardly a crime. They’re not killing anyone.’ Such an ostensibly commonsensical objection misses the point. Israel’s gradual annexation of the Palestinian Territories is a slow-going affair (see map): it a house-by-house form of ethnic cleansing. There is an architecture and an infrastructure of occupation which Veolia are helping to construct. Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law. Moreover, they also have a serious daily impact on the Palestinian communities where they are located: diverted water supplies; reduced access to farmland and settler destruction of crops; restricted freedom of movement hindering access to health; education and social resources; pollution of Palestinian land with settlement sewage – these are just some of the consequences that the settlements have for the affected Palestinian communities.

Apologists for Israel’s actions will try to persuade you that this need not concern outsiders, that only Israelis have the right to pronounce upon the way their state conducts itself. Others will openly make the case for the settlements – usually offering a bizarre parody of nineteenth-century colonial mores. Here, at this University, this term, you have a chance express your dissatisfaction with this status quo. You have a chance to be part of movement with growing momentum and to play a modestly small part in a big campaign. This concerns everyone.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Solidarity with Dale Farm: why we need to smash the state

Originally published on Keep it Broad; Keep it Radical

Today saw a brutal eviction of dale farm my hundreds of police.  At the crack of dawn police equipped in riot gear broke into the dale farm site.  They used sledge hammers to break the walls of people’s homes (including some legal plots) and used tasers of protestors attempting to resist the eviction.  Police violently attacked the residents fracturing the spine of one women taking refuge in one of the legal plots.  Throughout the day the police harassed residents preventing some leaving their homes.  Electricity for the site was cut off endangering the lives of several Travellers who rely on breathing machines to live.

All in all the Tory council spent £18 million so far in making 400 Travellers homeless.  Despite that it still took the police all day to secure the site and the eviction is still ongoing.

The eviction shows that despite all David Cameron’s rebranding of the conservatives and their alliance with the Lib Dems they remain very much the nasty party.  The only motive for the evictions is racism.  The council claims they are upholding planning laws and protecting green belt land, however this claim does not stand up to scrutiny.  Prior to occupation by the travellers the land was a scrap yard not green belt land.  Travellers have for 10 years attempted to gain planning permission for the site but the council refused to grant it.  Travellers have traditionally been labelled as thieves and misfits.

This eviction is part of a trend across Europe of scapegoating and attacking Travelling communities.  Camps in Italy, France and Hungary have all been attacked by both the state and in Italy and Hungary at least by organised racists groups.  As the economic crisis continues to deepen governments attempt to use scapegoats to turn anger away from themselves and the banks.  We are told that there is not money left for services and we should fight each other in scraps at the bottom.  In this environment everyone should stand 100% in solidarity with the Travellers facing eviction here and elsewhere. 

The events were also a demonstration of the power of the state.  Against a mere 400 people who refused to live there lives by the “normal” pattern hundreds of fully armed riot police were deployed.   When confronted with that incredibly dangerous weapon of a bottle of piss the police used tasers to attack those who resisted their advances.  The show of force by the state here against such a relatively small community shows that beyond the niceties of the court system are thousands of armed people to enforce the rule of law.  This is not the first time police have been used to attack those who don’t fit in to system.  Earlier this year student protesters felt the long arm of the law, a police charge into an anti Poll Tax demo in 1991 lead to a riot that help defeat the law, in the 1980s new age hippies whose only crime was to want to celebrate the solstice at stonehenge where badly beaten by hundreds of police and during perhaps the biggest confrontation of modern times, the miners’ strike, thousands of police occupied pit villages to smash pickets.  The list of police violence is much longer than this and is a daily reality for many.

There are some lessons to be drawn from this for those of us who may wish to challenge the state, either to demand reforms or for more substantial change.  At a time where the occupying spaces has become a tactic for achieving change we are reminded that should they wish to the state has forces capable of clearing away the occupations.  Where this has been attempted in Spain it has backfired with thousands more joining the protests in solidarity but this power is still there.  If the occupations seriously threaten the status quo these forces will need to be challenged.  

The centralised nature of the state has also been shown; officers were drawn from surrounding police forces to reinforce the eviction.  Some people argue for strategies to challenge the state and cause revolution by building up alternatives in the cracks of the system, these may be peace gardens in Athens, camps in Spanish squares or squats across the world.   The strategy of not challenging the state is doomed to fail; if these movements started to threaten the power of private property then the state would intervene.  Unless activists respond in a similarly centralised manner the state would be able to concentrate its forces and pick off the camps one by one.  Ultimately is we are to achieve fundamental change we will need to take on the state head on. 

The scenes today showed for all to see the brutal nature of the state.  We should stand in solidarity with those facing attacks today but we should also take note.  The forces today smashing up Travellers homes might tomorrow be attacking our occupations, our picket lines, our demonstrations.  If we are to achieve systemic change one day we must face up to the state.  There will be a point where if we do not smash the state it will smash our movement.  As people were chanting today in dale farm “No justice! No Peace! F**k the Police!”

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ballad of the Drop in the Ocean

The summer has arrived, and the summer sky
Shines on you too.
The water is warm, and in the warm water
You too lie.
On the green meadows you have
Pitched your tents. The roads
Heard your singing. The forest
Welcomes you. So
    You're no longer poor? There's more in the pot?
    You're being cared for? Content with your lot?
    So things are looking up, then? They're not:
    It's a drop in the ocean, that's what.


The forest has welcomed men with no homes. The lovely sky
Is shining on men with no hope. Those living in summer tents
Have no other shelter. Those lying in the warm water
Have not eaten. Those
Tramping the roads were simply carrying on
Their incessant search for work.
    You're still as poor. There's no more in the pot.
    You're not being cared for. You can't accept your lot.
    Are things looking up, then? No, they're not:
    It's a drop in the ocean, that's what.


Will you be content with nothing but the shining sky?
Will the warm water never release you again?
Will the forest hold on to you?
Are you being fobbed off? Are you being consoled?
The world is waiting for you to put your demands
It needs your discontent, your suggestions.
The world is looking to you with its last thread of hope.
    It's time you firmly said you will not
    Accept the drop, but must have the whole lot. 

Bertolt Brecht, 1931; trans. John Willett