DAMNED DEBUNKERS: Like many of you, I’m still in shock. The whole theory of relativity — the scientific breakthrough giving humans the ability to blow up the planet — has been debunked. My own personal space-time continuum — which I deploy for more mundane matters like getting to work in the morning — is reeling. Last week, a multinational team of physicists announced that light isn’t the fastest thing in the universe after all. It turns out their subatomic stopwatches clocked subatomic particles known as neutrinos — actually, about 15,000 of them — moving just a few nanoseconds faster than the speed of light in a 740-kilometer footrace. But according to Albert Einstein and his whole E = mc² shtick, absolutely nothing moves faster than light, which locomotes at the rate of 671 million miles an hour. This fact is the North Star upon which all modern physics is hinged. Without it, the universe comes unglued. In other words, Big Stuff. Most physicists I’ve talked to — admittedly only two, but one was a Nobel Prize winner — are in denial. Maybe the results were based on experimental errors, they protested. The final shoe, they suggested, has yet to drop. I understand. It’s kind of like learning God never existed but that he just died anyway.
There is a bright side to all this. If neutrinos are, in fact, faster than the speed of light, the possibility exists that we might be able to transmit signals backward in time. Why this “follows” I have no idea, but I’ve been told it does, though in a “naïve, fringy” sort of way. This possibility, in turn, will force the community of physicists to study what happens if physicists in the present conspire with evil-doers in the past to kill their own grandmothers. This is what’s known in the trade as “The Grandmother’s Paradox.” The fact that physicists actually have a name for such speculation should give us all serious pause.
This news helps explain why GPS devices — which would not exist but for the theory of relativity — sometimes have motorists taking sharp left turns into the path of oncoming traffic. And I’m hoping it will prove the final nail in the coffin of the nuclear power industry. One might think the Fukushima disaster would have done that, but some people actually think glow-in-the-dark rice is cool. Or maybe the meltdown at Chernobyl back in the ’80s. But those seeking sanity in this world may as well be squinting into the sun. Congress is lurching from one crisis after the next, each engineered to bring government to a standstill. The second such crisis in the past few months was narrowly averted, and the federal behemoth was given a five-week extension in which to lumber along. After that, presumably, Round Three begins. In Round Two, the Republicans and their allies in the Wingnut Party gave the Democrats a Sophie’s Choice ultimatum: Either kill a $1.5-billion program to fund the development of fuel-efficient auto parts and another $100-million program used to support solar energy, or they pull the plug on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Democrats managed to escape only when some clever bean counters proved — via smoke and mirrors, no doubt — that FEMA had more money in its accounts than previously understood. This “fact” will allow FEMA to continue to operate, but only for one additional week.
The Tea Party, it’s become clear, is consumed with a special hatred for all things environmental, but solar energy especially. For them, this past week had to have been delicious. Executives from Solyndra, the California solar company that crashed and burned after receiving half-a-billion in federal subsidies, pled the Fifth when grilled by Senate Republicans. That always looks bad. But I prefer to look on the bright side. When solar executives act just as arrogantly and stupidly as their counterparts in big oil and tobacco, we can safely say the solar industry has truly “arrived.” Santa Barbara’s curmudgeonly solar guru John Perlin said everyone knew — or should have known — that Solyndra’s business plan was unstable, but that’s no reason to chuck the baby out with the bathwater. Perlin just got back from a solar conference in Germany, where some regions get 30 percent of their power from the sun, even though they get about half as much sunlight as Santa Barbara. That didn’t happen by accident, he said. It happened because government mandated it. Here, he said, the government underwrites the cost of oil. If the military expenditures needed to keep the world’s sea lanes open to oil tankers were factored into the price of gas, Perlin said gas would cost $13 a gallon. Why aren’t the so-called budget hawks, he wondered, squawking about that?
Even though Santa Barbara’s City Council has been taken over by people dubious about climate change and even more skeptical that we need to do anything about it, I was heartened to see the council give out 97 solar-design awards during a grip ’n’ grin attaboy fest this Tuesday for people who braved the high costs to install solar panels on their homes. I understand that in today’s changed political climate, utility companies have a god-given right to emit mercury pollution. Even so, I was glad to hear that the County of Santa Barbara just brought back from the dead a program — emPowerSBC — designed to use $1 million in federal funding to leverage up to $20 million in private loans to pay for energy-efficient home retrofits and, in some cases, solar installations. Terms vary, but the maximum package is for $25,000 at 5.9 percent to be paid back over 15 years. Will it work? Who knows, but at least we’re trying. Failing that, I’d say we need to expand on The Grandmother’s Paradox. Using what we learned from Einstein and the alleged theory of relativity, we can beam plans to build an atomic bomb backward in time and blow up all our grandmothers. But at the rate we’re going now, that would be superfluous.