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Alternate Realities

My advisor in college once quipped, “You know you’re a chemist when you can think like an electron.” Anthropomorphism aside, this statement is recognition of the centrality of the electron to chemistry: without electrons there would be no chemical bonds, and without chemical bonds there would be no…well, anything.

What occupies this can’t-do-without-it agency in physics? Recently it’s been the neutrino, the ubiquitous electrically neutral subatomic particle able to pass through matter without affecting it. The news last month from Europe was that a research team at CERN near the French/Swiss border observed neutrinos arriving at a detector faster than the speed of light. Never mind that the time delay was a nearly infinitesimal 60 nanoseconds—this finding, if true, upends much of the foundation of modern physics, including Einstein’s sacred theory of relativity.

Naturally, the experiment is being repeated, checked, parsed, and thoroughly debated because physicists aren’t really all that anxious to rethink everything held dear for the past century. Personally, I hope it turns out that neutrinos can travel faster than light because, really, what could be more fun than to totally re-imagine the basic nature of the universe?

But this discovery also causes me to wonder—what hypothetical result could upset chemistry as dramatically? One possibility would be that something other than electrons is really the fundamental stuff of chemical bonds. I’d love to hear from readers on your own untidy speculations on alternative chemical realities.

Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.

Related:
Time Travel [Periodic Tabloid]
Physicists Offer Mundane Explanations for Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos [Wired Science]

Posted In: Technology

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