Traveling faster than light is, as you've probably guessed, impossible. Einstein's theory of special relativity is as valid now as it was this time last month. And yet, if you've read the headlines recently, you'd think some kind of physics revolution is at hand.
The recent hubbub surrounding those pesky superluminal neutrinos has been met with incredulity from experts and public alike. But the facts are hard to ignore: An experiment at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, appears to have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. In short, these neutrinos have achieved the impossible.
If true, these results would be very exciting, but sadly, as the days roll on, "superluminal" doesn't appear to be a setting on the neutrino's speedometer.
It's Not Wrong, It's Just Not Right
The results that came from the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus) collaboration has now drawn fire from Lawrence M. Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, who penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled "CERN and colliding theories."
"What do you do as a scientist when you know a research result that is almost certainly wrong is about to become a media sensation?" Krauss asked in the Oct. 4 article.
Krauss echoes the concerns that scientists interviewed by Discovery News' Jennifer Ouellette shared when the news originally broke (on Sept. 24) about these souped-up neutrinos.
Fermilab physicist Joseph Lykken told Jennifer that the OPERA results were "a pretty messy way to try to test a fundamental property. You have a proton beam at CERN that makes the neutrinos, but you don't know which proton made which neutrino. This makes it tough to claim nanosecond timing of the neutrinos."
Krauss agrees that the result more likely comes from a systematic error:
Although the neutrinos appeared to arrive at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy (some 454 miles from the LHC — the source of the neutrinos) faster than light would have taken, it is much more likely that there is some unaccounted-for error in the method rather than any unforeseen kink in the physical nature of our universe.
Lykken and Krauss point to the "messy" way in which the neutrinos were generated and measured as potentially accounting for the 60-nanosecond discrepancy between the speed of light and that of the measured neutrino beam.
OK, so it seems this grand announcement was premature, as Krauss points out, especially as the OPERA research had yet to be reviewed by peers in the field. It's little wonder that a flood of publications contradicting the OPERA results hit the arXiv preprint server faster than the (alleged) neutrinos themselves!
But was this a bad thing? Did CERN deliberately jump the gun? Was it the media's fault for blowing the whole thing out of proportion?
To Krauss, the way in which the CERN announcement was presented to the world is a cause for concern.
"A dramatic claim from a distinguished laboratory that turns out to be false reinforces the notion that somehow science is not to be trusted, that one can dismiss theories one finds inconvenient, even those whose predictions do agree with observations," he said.
This is true. When dealing with science and the public, a certain degree of filtering needs to be applied and the whole scientific process to publication needs to be followed through. If every hypothesis was announced to the world like the OPERA results, there would be a media-induced scientific revolution every week! But soon after, these "revolutions" would be overturned and criticism would be leveled at institutions and scientists.
If faster than light neutrinos do exist, there needs to be many rounds of testing, independent analyses and rigorous peer review before we can start announcing dents in Einstein's bedrock theories. But, as is abundantly clear in this world of fierce media competition, social media and science transparency, any theory is a good theory so long as it makes a good story — as long as the scientific method has been followed and the science is correctly represented by the writer, that is.
Not so long ago, there was massive excitement about time-traveling Higgs particles acting as emissaries for the universe to sabotage the LHC; the story virtually wrote itself, but it was based on an unpublished paper.
Then there's the hypothesis that we're all living in a hologram. That comes from some very cool physics currently being tested by Craig Hogan of Fermilab. Alas, the holographic universe hypothesis is still in the realms of science fiction.
And who can forget the Tevatron's mystery "bump"? Well, physicists are still working on that.
These examples are fascinating, and yet they're far from understood, let alone proven. Should stories such as these be reported on? Do grand announcements of such endeavors ignite distrust of science? Or is the public savvy enough to decipher the difference between an "interesting hypothesis that might get disproven" and a "physics revolution"?
I think there needs to be a middle ground. Sure, make hypotheses available to the public, discuss developing ideas, publish the preprints — these things ignite excitement in the cutting edge of the human adventures of the quantum and cosmological worlds. This is where good science journalism and good science communication come into play.
In the case of the OPERA experiment, CERN may have been hoping to quell any public misunderstandings of the preliminary superluminal neutrino results by creating a media event to make the science crystal clear. The media frenzy wasn't necessarily a disaster (as Krauss alludes to in his Los Angeles Times article), nor did it throw CERN into disrepute; I think it actually gave the media and the public a rare glimpse into how science works and how long-standing theories can be challenged.
The only wild card in all this was the media reaction. Although there were the inevitable "Was Einstein Wrong?" headlines, generally I think the science was well-represented.
The tabloid press, on the other hand, did what they do best and treated it like the latest celebrity sensation. You can't win 'em all.
Ultimately, science isn't just about disproving theories, it's about the method, the journey of hypothesizing, formulating theories and testing them, over and over again. These superluminal neutrinos may not exist (if they do, they will turn physics upside down), but it sure is interesting to see how this fascinating study plays out in scientific and public forums.
Image: Faster than light? Credit: CORBIS.