ADVERTISEMENT
Basic Space

Basic Space

Space and astrophysics research made simple

Faster-than-light neutrinos expose the inner workings of science

|

"Do you think the missing 60ns got lost down there?" Credit: {link url="http://icarus.lngs.infn.it/photos/installationT600/pages/4.html"}ICARUS{/link}

It looks like the faster-than-light neutrino saga – or should that now be slower-than-light or the-same-speed-as-light? – may nearly be over. On Friday, CERN updated their statement on the initial OPERA result with some new results from ICARUS, another experiment at the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy.

Here are the important bits of the statement:

The ICARUS measurement, using last year’s short pulsed beam from CERN, indicates that the neutrinos do not exceed the speed of light on their journey between the two laboratories.

[...]

The ICARUS experiment has independent timing from OPERA and measured seven neutrinos in the beam from CERN last year. These all arrived in a time consistent with the speed of light.

The ICARUS experiment has also uploaded a paper to arXiv.org, if you want more detail on how they conducted the experiment. (Or if you like your sentences oddly worded, like this: "The result is compatible with the simultaneous arrival of all events with equal speed, the one of light.")

So, that's that. Or is it?

In the updated statement, CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci stresses the importance of rigour in scientific experiments. Bertolucci says:

The Gran Sasso experiments, BOREXINO, ICARUS, LVD and OPERA will be making new measurements with pulsed beams from CERN in May to give us the final verdict. In addition, cross-checks are underway at Gran Sasso to compare the timings of cosmic ray particles between the two experiments, OPERA and LVD.

The more measurements we have, the more sure we can be of the result. But the evidence is starting to suggest that the initial OPERA result was wrong.

Bertolucci goes on to say:

Whatever the result, the OPERA experiment has behaved with perfect scientific integrity in opening their measurement to broad scrutiny, and inviting independent measurements. This is how science works.

[Emphasis mine.]

A commenter on this blog has said that the whole faster-than-light neutrino saga (as I'm quite enjoying calling it) is a "failure of communication rather than physics." But I don't think it is necessarily a failure of anything.

As many people have pointed out, OPERA behaved exactly as they should have done. There was no way they could have sat on the result until they had checked it further. It would have leaked eventually, and them keeping quiet wouldn't have helped speculation or science. More, independent measurements are always good. Openness, in theory, is always good.

When they announced their result, they did so in the best possible way. In a statement the collaboration said:

Given the potential far-reaching consequences of such a result, independent measurements are needed before the effect can either be refuted or firmly established.

Once the result was announced, there was no way the media could have not reported on it. If it was true, it would have changed physics forever.The general tone of articles about the initial result suggested that most news outlets were sceptical of the result. In a good way. It was more "Oh look, some physicists might have proved Einstein wrong, weird huh?" than "OH MY GOD RUN FOR THE HILLS CAUSALITY IS NO MORE!".

Ok, the whole "dodgy wiring" update was too good not to poke a little fun at. But it was harmless. I don't think anyone who commented on it sounding a little silly was suggesting that the scientists had been stupid to make that mistake. I certainly was not suggesting that.

In a way, to put the result down to an experimental error as mundane as dodgy wiring is rather comforting. It reminds us that science is done by scientists who are human too, and fallible just like everyone else. (Except their mistakes almost accidentally bring down Einstein's theory of relativity, rather than resulting in a broken hairdryer.)

In fact I'm inclined to think that the faster-than-light neutrino saga has been rather good for the relationship between science and the rest of us. Or, at least, it has the potential to be good. Perhaps now we can stop pretending that science is this big impersonal entity that moves along in increments the exact size of a scientific paper. Perhaps we can realise that science and scientists can make mistakes, but that's ok.

If the story of the faster-than-light neutrinos is a failure of anything, it's the way we think about science. Sergio Bertolucci was right when he said "this is how science works." We just need to get used to it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Email this Article

X