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Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seeing How the Science Process Works - A Possible Colossal Discovery?!

As we will see in class when we look at some relativity, Albert Einstein developed the theory with 2 assumptions, which we tend to call Einstein's postulates. The first is that the principle of relativity holds true (this dates back to Galileo and Newton), and that the speed of light is a constant and the speed limit in the universe.

A new result at a CERN neutrino experiment has a neutrino moving faster than light! Now, prior to announcing the result, the scientists on the experiment spent months going through their data, their analysis methods, the hardware and software that were used to make measurements, checking uncertainties, redoing calculations, and so on. They were well aware that announcing this was going to make the physics world go ballistic, so they double and triple checked everything they could think of. And now, with the news out there and the world paying attention, they want the scientific world to scrutinize their work and try to either confirm or dismiss the result.

This is a wonderful example of how science is supposed to work! There is a century of tests that confirm relativity's predictions and implications. Now comes a single result that concludes a foundational assumption of the theory is flawed. The science world, which grew up with relativity as one of the two fundamental theories on which the entire discipline rests, are, of course, naturally skeptical of any attempt to displace Einstein. I am admittedly part of that camp, as my own work at Fermilab required relativistic predictions and outcomes...and it all held up under our measurements. But, at the same time, we need to be able to accept new information and knowledge and results from good experiments. Nothing in science is absolutely sacred! In fact, one could argue that we already know that relativity and quantum mechanics are not the absolute final theories of Nature - even relativity breaks down inside black holes, for example. We know we need some new physics at some point in time.

So let the confirmation games begin, as I would imagine a good number of physicists are already thinking about how to reproduce the experiment. Only two labs in the world will be able to do similar experiments, those being Fermilab and a Japanese neutrino experiment. Will the results be confirmed or dismissed? Most scientists are 'biased' and believe something must be wrong with the experiment making this claim. But never say never in science. Instead, we will need to do our job and try to find the truths of the universe, whatever those may be.

Addendum (10/8/2011):
There is tension within the OPERA Collaboration, which is the group that did this work at CERN. Nearly half do not want to formally publish this result yet in a professional journal since they think more tests and re-tests need to be done in order to have additional confidence in the results. Check out this article for more details.

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