Oct 062011

Neutrino TrackOn September 22nd a team of scientists working on the OPERA project (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) in Italy released results of their observations of neutrinos which apparently have travelled faster than the speed of light.  Anybody who has the most rudimentary understanding of physics knows that according to Einstein nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Not being a physicist what are we as lay people to make of such an announcement?  First, if true this would have tremendous implications for our understanding of the universe.  It would in fact rewrite the text books.  It would be a paradigm shift not seen since Einstein shook the world with his theory of relativity which overturned our Newtonian view of the universe.

Second, whether true or false it would give us further insight, not into the nature of physics, but the nature of science and the scientific method.

Every now and then we get announcements of fantastic claims from various fields of science.  In 1989 Pons and Fleischmann gave us the tantalizing hope of cold-fusion.   Barely two months after the announcement the press called the whole affair a circus and as far as the press was concerned cold fusion was dead.  After critical review by their peers, who were unable to replicate their findings, any last hope of room temperature nuclear fusion was lost.  The lead scientist’s reputations were severely damaged in the academic community.

The Italian scientists, in making public their results which would seem to be as controversial as cold fusion, have placed their reputations on the line as well.  There are significant differences in this case, instead of two scientists making the claim we have 174 authors to the discovery.  They are also reporting on data which they have observed over three years and have meticulously examined for error.  In posting their results they are being very cautious by not ruling out some form of error which they may have overlooked despite their caution.

To quote from the conclusion of their paper:

Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results.

This is what impresses me most and gives me hope for the future of science that even when faced with enormous pressure to dismiss the results they publish anyway knowing full-well that they have done their due diligence.  The results, if true, are apparently too important to sweep under the carpet for fear of harming reputations and losing grant funding.  There is more than a bit of courage here.

In what other field of endeavor do we see such a rigorous self-examination to ensure that what is being published is accurate and open to scrutiny by peers and the public?

The popular press is filled with pundits and politicians quick to jump on any statement by others and either take it as absolute fact or dismiss it out of hand without consideration for all the facts.  Almost any environmental movement of the day is built on a shaky foundation of questionable science and emotion.  For example, public health officials seem to constantly change their ideal government approved diet plans not out of a rigorous adherence to the scientific method but based on inexact science and powerful lobbying.

Science is all about the truth.  It’s about peeling away thousands of years of falsehoods and superstitions to arrive at truth.  Its methods are open for criticism and refutation.  In fact any good scientist will welcome criticism.  Science begins with the formulation of an hypothesis, and an hypothesis is an assertion which is capable of being proven false.  So at the outset of any experiment the scientist realizes that he may be wrong.  It is his job to prove his assertions.

For thousands of years our knowledge of the universe consisted of stories and anecdotes, fable and fairy tales told by witchdoctors, priests and shamans.  They received their “knowledge” of the universe by word of mouth, by hallucinations under the influence of drugs or severe physical stress, like spending 40 days and nights alone in a desert.

For the past 400 years scientists have developed the scientific method of systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation and of formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses.  This enlightened method of seeking the truth has brought us out of the dark ages of ignorance and despair and given us a greater understanding of nature and ourselves.

Originally broadcast on Just Right #220, October 6, 2011.