“Do you know how fast you were going?” Law-abiding neutrinos give a glimpse at the scientific process

Neutrinos are funny things.  Their existence was first hypothesized in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli as a way to explain how a certain kind of radioactive decay doesn’t violate well-established physical principles.  Ironic then that 80 years later the poor little guys would themselves be fingered as lawbreakers.  We already knew that neutrinos zip around at ridiculous speeds, close to that of light, enabled by their nearly non-existent mass, but could they actually surpass that cosmic speed limit?  Of course it’s since been confirmed that the original, supernaturally suggestive findings from the OPERA detection project in Gran Sasso, Italy were erroneous, but could the relativity reprisal have been real?  What implications would that have?  And what does the huge, hollow hubbub tell us about how science is done and how it’s reported?

Einstein

The Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) detector, which finished construction in 2008, was designed to measure the phenomenon of neutrino oscillation.  It turns out that being the smallest and fastest particles in the universe isn’t enough for the bewildering bastards, as they ratchet up the weirdness by actually changing between their three different types while traveling through space.  This realization solved a major problem in the standard model of how the Sun operates, as earthbound measurements only observe between a third and half of the electron neutrinos predicted to be produced by solar activity.  Who would’ve guessed they’d be altering their identities on the way here?!

So that’s two cosmic mysteries the mighty yet tiny neutrino had helped to clear up.  Okay, their presence actually kind of precipitated the “solar neutrino problem” but hey, they were vindicated in the end.  The roguish particles seemed poised to make history again when OPERA announced in September of 2011 they had measured the arrival times of neutrinos produced at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland to be 60 nanoseconds faster than if they had been traveling at light speed.  That might seem like a small discrepancy, but in physics a few billionths can make the difference between ordinary and iconoclasm.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

The error was identified in March of 2012 as a faulty GPS cable connection, but that’s only part of the story.  It does show that scientists are human and capable of making mistakes like the rest of us, as with the embarrassing unit conversion mishap that scuttled the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.  Don’t be fooled though; awry equipment isn’t always the answer when measurement discrepancies have amazing implications.  The original confirmation of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the best piece of evidence we have for the Big Bang, was attributed to an accumulation of bird shit before the antenna was cleaned and the experiment repeated.

And that’s one of the primary tenets of science.  Reproducibility.  Fool us once, Universe, shame on you.  We’ll work harder and come together so we won’t be fooled again.  The real story here is how tentative the potentially revolutionary results were presented, and how the physics community proceeded.  Relativity is one of the most robustly supported theories in science.  Its mathematical confirmation helped give Einstein the celebrity status he still enjoys today.  Your GPS wouldn’t work right without it.  So instead of immediately proclaiming the king to be dead, the OPERA scientists asked the rest of the community, “Uh, could you take a look at this?  It doesn’t look right.”  Sure enough, three different experiments refuted the new data, and even OPERA’s numbers came back to reality once the equipment issue had been resolved.  This is not just a clear-cut victory for Einstein, but for the scientific process itself.

If there are victors in this instance, we can’t ignore the losers.  Antonio Ereditato, OPERA’s spokesperson, resigned after the flap following a “no confidence” vote from other project leaders, even though he himself had criticized the media for over-sensationalizing the initial story.  It’s plain to see that the disconnect between how science works and how it’s communicated is still in effect.  We should take mainstream reports of scientific findings with a grain of salt and try to look for primary sources and accounts whenever we can, as too often our journalists seem to prefer getting it fast to getting it right.

And the cranks banging out homemade manifestos on how relativity is wrong should probably give it a rest.  If billions of dollars of equipment and the brightest minds in the world can’t do it, chances are you didn’t stumble upon revolution from your studio apartment.

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