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Why Ghosts Don’t Exist, and Charlie Frost is Wrong (And Yet Still The Best Part Of “2012″)

November 25, 2009

I don’t recall how the conversation started, but the question eventually put forth to me was straightforward, and to the point: “Do you believe in Ghosts?”  It was a leading question, as my wife knows full well I don’t believe in ghosts, but I knew what she meant.  The real question was, “Why don’t you believe in ghosts?”  So, I told her about neutrinos.

Neutrinos have gained some popularity recently, albeit at the expense of some unnecessary notoriety, as the solar-powered “bad guys” featured in the epic FAILURE of a movie, “2012″  If you haven’t seen it (the movie), this clip below not only captures the entire plot, but is actually, in my opinion, the best part of the movie:

[And by the way, there's a *reason* you don't recall hearing about Charles Hapgood's, "Earth Crust Displacement Theory" when you were in school, and it's not just because I am a science nerd, and you, comparatively speaking, are not. It's because "Earth Crust Displacement Theory" is, and always was, complete and utter bullshit, and does a complete disservice to how scientists use the word "theory".  That the mechanisms for the end of the world featured in "2012" depend on this bogus "theory" should tell you something about the believability of everything that follows.]

Anyway, I’m gonna splain to ya’ll as simply as I can what neutrinos are, and why I refer to them in questions about ghosts.  Simply put, neutrinos are really, really small…damn near massless (but not quite), sub-atomic particles.  As you read this, around 50-trillion of them just passed through your nose.  Wikipedia (gotta love it!) says neutrinos are:

“…elementary particles that often travel close to the speed of light, are electrically neutral, are able to pass through ordinary matter almost undisturbed and are thus extremely difficult to detect. Neutrinos have a minuscule, but nonzero mass.”

I’d like to drill in on something right there.  Note the phrase, “extremely difficult to detect“.  Somebody’s being modest, because saying neutrino’s are “extremely difficult to detect” is like saying Roger Federer is a “pretty good tennis player”.

I’d heard once that neutrino’s were so small, so “ghostlike”, that they could pass through a light-year of solid lead, without hitting anything.  Now it’s my turn to ask a leading question:  Do you have any idea how friggin big a light-year is?  Yeah, yeah…it’s the distance light travels in one (Earth) year.  And since light travels at 299,792,458 m/s, +/- 1m/s (I just want ya’ll to know that I pulled that number directly from memory.  It also happens to be the fake social-security number I give to business/organizations that claim to need to know my SSN#.  I’ve been doing it for 20-years, with no ill effects to yours truly), that adds up to…wait for it...about 6 TRILLION miles.  We’re talking 6 million, million miles.  6 x 1012 miles.  Got it?

Well, I was wrong.  I just learned the real number is about 3 orders of magnitude larger.  That is, a neutrino could pass through not just one light year of lead, but a THOUSAND light-years of lead, and never hit anything!  6 x 1015 miles.  That’s a quadrillion, but at this point, I think it actually becomes acceptable to make up names like “6 zillion, gajillion miles”.  The distance is so absurdly huge that it escapes human comprehension anyway, so why not?

The obvious question now is, “Well, if they’re so damned hard to detect, how do we even know they exist?”  Good question, and once again, I’ll try to break it down to something fairly meaningful.

1.    First, because the folks that work on these sorts of problems are really, really freakin smart, and they have the cumulative power of the entire history of science preceding them (standing on the “shoulders of giants”), as well as technology that is nothing short of magical.  Really cool, sci-fi type stuff

2.    Second, these smart folks have designed, built, and tested, neutrino detectors.  I’m sure everyone has the Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detector link on “The Blog Below” bookmarked, as I do, but just in case you don’t, here it is.  (Cool blog, by the way)

The Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detector is, as you will recall, a giant water tank (roughly 129ft across & 136ft deep) filled with 13,256,450 gallons of ultra-pure water, buried a kilometer underground, in solid rock.

Picture 2

Due to a freakly little thing that happens (the light equivalent of a “sonic boom”) when a neutrino just so happens to interact with matter, i.e, the water in the tank, a tiny – very tiny – flash of light is emitted.  It’s so faint that the brightness could be compared to looking at a single candle, placed on the moon.  Yeah, I know there’s no oxygen on the moon, and a candle couldn’t burn up there, but gimme some leeway will ya!

(I’m pretty sure I’ve lost everyone at this point, but what the hell, I’ll keep going.)

The point is this:  If we’ve figured out how to detect friggin neutrino’s, then on what grounds do we have ANY rational reason to suppose that there are “ghosts” out there?  Can you see ghosts?  If yes, then they are material beings…we’d be able to detect them.  Or, maybe they’re invisible?  OK, fine.  Do they interact with the natural world?  Make weird sounds in the night, hide your keys, steal socks out of the dryer…that sort of thing?  If yes, then we’d be able to detect them.  You can continue to add “But what if Ghosts are… [insert next ad hoc property here] in a futile effort to explain why we can’t detect them, but pretty soon you’ll have ghosts that don’t interact with our world in any way, can’t be seen, can’t be heard, and can’t be detected.  Ever.

Soooo…how, may I ask (in yet another leading question), is that any different from there simply not being any ghosts at all?



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