On Science at Work

Einstein was wrong!

I saw that headline last week, and others similar since. Of course, not every news agency uses the same headline, but, whether it was the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, the BBC, or whatever/where ever, this story was very newsworthy. Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced about their discovery of particles moving faster than the established universal speed limit known as the speed of light.

The headline above and some of the reports really burns my butt because they are a prime example of feeding the misconception to the public that science is unreliable. Then again, it also confirms that many in the public do not understand how science works.

1 – Scientific findings are for that moment in time – thus both true and temporary until something better comes along. Yes, it is possible that everything in a school’s science book could be wrong 200 years from now, but I would not bet on it.

2 – The scientific community has a wonderful method of verification. The initial finding is subject to the scrutiny, thus verification, by others in the scientific community. I can recall past headlines about cold fusion and life on Mars that turned out to be not so true because science must verify the claims within the boundaries of science and with scientific methodologies.

3 – When finding something new – or potentially new – good scientists realize the process, thus hedge their explanations with words as could, may, might, appears, or others. These words help confirm both the subject-to-change nature of science and the importance of verification process.

Regardless what one may have read or heard, I provide text from CERN’s easy-to-understand press release to support my points, especially paragraphs 2 through 4.

Perhaps this paragraph from CERN says it best.

Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potential great impact of the results 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.

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23 thoughts on “On Science at Work

  1. As I said in your previous post where we discussed this, there are two key points to understand. First, the “overspeed” detected is on the order of 6 parts per million. If it took 93 minutes to reach the Sun from the Earth before, with this “extra speed” it would take 92.999 minutes. Not a lot of difference, eh?
    And second, the confidence level of this is rated at less than 3 sigma – about 98-99 percent. That sounds high, but the target is 6 sigma, which works out to something like 99.9999% sure. Trust me, that’s a HUGE difference in the physics world.
    Einstein ain’t dead yet, and the speed of light isn’t soon to change. If they DO prove the observation is correct, then they have to find out WHY this is true – and that could take decades or even centuries.
    So don’t throw those science textbooks away just yet. 186,200 miles per second isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law – for now. :D

    • Um … maybe I shoulda said, in that wonderful conclusion, that Einstein’s IDEAS ain’t dead yet. Unless somebody out there has met zombie Einstein lately? ;)

        • So, you’re saying we’re all safe from (dramatic music)……
          “Attack Of The Zombie Physicists!!!” (echo)
          So, if vampires are killed by pure holy silver or wood (from the Cross) stakes, what would you kill a zombie physicist with?
          Maybe a copy of Bachmann’s manifesto? ;) :D

  2. I appreciated the tone of the researchers statements and their press release- inviting others to examine their work and duplicate their results.Your right, that’s the way science is supposed to work. Unfortunately some scientists are not immune from the pressures to self promote and hype. But not these people from CERN.

  3. Even if the results of the neutrino experiment hold up, they do not contradict Einstein’s theories of SR and GR. Not in the slightest. Despite widespread misconceptions, SR does /not/ preclude superluminal travel, nor any of its implications (e.g. time travel). But I guess “Einsein Was Wrong” does make for a sexy headline.

    What SR /does/ say is that it is impossible to accelerate an information-carrying particle from subluminal to superluminal speeds. Nothing done in the neutrino experiment is in violation of this principle. In the experiment it was not neutrinos that were accelerated. Neutrinos were created upon collision of photons, and from their very birth these neutrinos had superluminal speed (if we assume the experiment to be valid .. otherwise they traveled at light speed as they normally do in nature, for example in sun-rays).

    Another reason why even some scientists misinterpret what SR is saying is that a particle traveling at superluminal speeds leads to an imaginary-valued Lorentz factor, which implies that time dilation and length contraction become imaginary numbers (like square root of -1). Einstein had no problem with this. On a philosophical level, people again cannot accept the implications of superluminal travel, as it would logically violate the principle of causality (again, however, not in conflict with SR or GR).

    It really sucks when others misinterpret your life’s work and then blame YOU for the consequences of THEIR erroneous assumptions (especially when you’re no longer around to defend yourself).

  4. @afrankangle: My pleasure. Of all the sites I’ve visited regarding this whole business, yours was one of very few that treated these reports with the appropriate amounts of speculation and skepticism.

    There is also the whole issue of statistical error,which I didn’t even address, mainly because your contributor, John Erickson, treated this in a most convincing manner. He was dead on target.

    Kudos to you for maintaining a really fine site that digs behind all the sensationalism in the quest for physical truth and accuracy.

    • Doc, I was about to thank you for explaining things much better than I was able to. Now I must add my thanks for your compliment! As some of the gang here knows, particle physics is a hobby of mine ever since I spent a summer over 35 years ago out at Fermilab in Batavia Illinois. Might I ask what university or group you are with? (Just curious – you don’t have to if you don’t want to.)
      Once again, thanks for the great explanation.

    • Doc,
      Many thanks for the kind words. Although I have a science background (biology instead of physics), here I tend to focus more on the relationship between science and theology. I found the CERN announcement as a wonderful example of how science works – which too many people don’t know or have misconceptions about. So I very much appreciate the kind words from an academic. John is one of my loyal visitors, and it’s great to see John’s words verified as well. Thanks for adding to the topic!

  5. John, Not at all. I’m a pure mathematician on faculty at Villanova University.
    My areas of expertise are group theory, group representation theory, algebraic combinatorics, and extremal graph theory. But more to the point, in 1993 I was made a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton NJ. This is where Einstein spent his entire academic life after his emigration to America. My status as “member”, however, is a FAR CRY from, and not to be confused with, that of “permanent faculty”, which is the post to which Einstein was appointed. In fact, over its 80 years of existence, IAS has bestowed this honor on only 100 or so scientists. I’m sure you’d recognize a great number of names on this “laundry list of legends” ;-)

    • Les,
      A special welcome to a first-time visitor. But hey … the post I read was absolutely brilliant, so no accident. Then again, it could have been a temporary lapse of judgment on my part. So for your first post you went into the depths of this place. Although it wasn’t that long ago, why did you visit this post? Nonetheless, thanks for visiting and hope you return.

    • Starla,
      Woo hoo! You made it to the other link. This post was interesting because of the comment from the professor from Villanova – thus another one for Navar to read. As for John, oh boy … he usually responds to others in his unique way with words.

      • Yes, I enjoyed reading this post as well. :+) I also appreciated Johns humor. I think humor is nice in all kinds of situations life, learning,and all of the above, I will point this post out to Navar as well. He is up doing more homework now as we speek. He has a lot of subjects he is teaching in his first year because it is such a small school. I’m surprised his sanity is still intact.

        • Starla,
          Regardless of grade level and subject matter, the first year is a challenging one for any teacher … and as a teacher in a small school, he is obviously wearing many hats – which means more works. Best of luck to him.

  6. Pingback: Flashbacks: On Science | A Frank Angle

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