Please be true: Beating cancer, and the speed of light

A couple of things to get excited about:

1) Doctors are exploring a new method of fighting cancer — by training the immune system to destroy it. So far, the results have been dramatic. And if these experimental treatments prove sound, then the war on cancer will quite possibly have been won. (Update — There’s more: Researchers are studying a virus that can apparently kill 100% of breast cancer cells in as little as seven days. Details here.)

2) Physicists are looking into the possibility that some subatomic particles may exceed the speed of light — a limit that Einstein had declared to be inviolable. This is still very far from a sure thing. But if true, apart from overturning Einstein and revolutionizing physics itself, the implications are enormous:

John Learned, a neutrino astronomer at the University of Hawaii, said that if the results of the Opera researchers turned out to be true, it could be the first hint that neutrinos can take a shortcut through space, through extra dimensions. Joe Lykken of Fermilab said, “Special relativity only holds in flat space, so if there is a warped fifth dimension, it is possible that on other slices of it, the speed of light is different.”

And if that turns out to be the case, can we not somehow harness neutrinos the way we’ve already unlocked the power of the atom to suit our ends? Can our dreams of interstellar travel — of beating the light-speed barrier, warping space, or taking some extra-dimensional shortcut in order to finally reach the stars — really be so far beyond our grasp? Scientists often remind us that, for all the new worlds we’re detecting — perhaps even some harboring life — the vast distances of space and the light-speed limit ensure that we are, for all practical purposes, alone. Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing to break free of those shackles and take an even bigger “giant leap,” the biggest and most important one humanity will have ever made?

I know, I know, I’m just daydreaming here. These developments in medicine and physics are still just tantalizing possibilities, not certainties. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (as all the articles reporting on these announcements hasten to say), and further testing may prove these claims to be less than what we’d hoped. But just for the moment, I for one am willing to let a shiver of excitement run down my spine — as I entertain the possibility that, even now, in this jaded and exhausted age when optimism is cramped and ambition is in short supply, humanity’s most wondrous discoveries and achievements are yet to come.
Update: MIT’s Technology Review writes about a possible explanation for the neutrinos here.

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