Speedy neutrinos: science in action, or jumping the gun?

The elusive neutrino

Neutrino observation, 1970

People who’d never even heard of a neutrino probably still managed to catch the news last September that some of these teeny tiny particles just *might* have been caught in the act of travelling faster than the speed of light. But some scientists thought these results should never have been released – the researchers themselves admitted they were expecting to find an error somewhere.

Now it looks like they have. Two potential timing errors could have affected the results – one giving a faster than actual time, the other a slower result than in reality. It’s not yet clear what the final analysis will tell us, but do these mistakes show that the scientists at CERN were jumping the gun when they announced their (almost) unbelievable results?

As the BBC put it, “what might have been the biggest physics story of the past century may instead be down to a faulty connection”. Or is this in fact a perfect demonstration of science in action? Scientists don’t have all the answers – that’s why they run experiments. What’s wrong with showing the world how this process works, warts and all?

Astrophysicist Martin Rees wasn’t impressed with the original result, telling Scientific American “I think it will be perceived in retrospect as an embarrassment that this claim received so much publicity—the inevitable consequence of posting a preprint on the Web.”

Has time proved him right? Did the publicity only highlight a foolish error that should have been spotted sooner, avoiding the need for back-tracking headlines? I don’t think so, and in my opinion this point of view begs a worrying question – who exactly are the scientists meant to be hiding from?

I don’t see the problem with putting results out for all to see and examine.  The scientists couldn’t find their mistake, even after extensive checks. As a spokesperson for the team at CERN explained after the original announcement, “whenever you are in these conditions, then you have to go to the community.”

The media response was huge – but everyone understood that the question was open. Had neutrinos travelled faster than light? We weren’t sure yet, but scientists all over the world were trying to find out. I found this really exciting – the reports plunged the reader into the middle of the experiment, and you could imaging the researchers poring over their results desperately trying to spot the missing link, all the while hoping (and fearing) the results were correct.

It’s often hard to make the “one step forward, two steps back” reality of science come to life, but this was a great example. Immediately scientists were trading theories on what could have gone wrong, and what the results could mean if they turned out to be true. This speculation showed how science relies on repeat experiments and ingenious analysis – spotting your mistakes is just as important as proving yourself right (or it should be).

I don’t think there is anything embarrassing about admitting you’re stumped and asking for help. A cynic could argue that the CERN team were too keen to reach out for publicity, but the end result is that their experiments are being repeated – we’ll be able to answer their questions faster because they went public. And how many more people have heard of neutrinos now?

I liked this story because for once it cast scientists as human beings – not always sure of themselves, and capable of error. Putting science on a pedestal high above everything else is naive and misleading, and the elusive speedy neutrinos showed that physics doesn’t just come in black and white. It’s a small step for particle physics, but a bigger leap for science in the media.

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