2011-09-26

The Neutrino News and Science in the Public

I'm sure many of you have heard the news about the neutrinos that supposedly traveled faster than light through rocky material (though this is all still slower than light through a vacuum, which is still the ultimate speed limit). Given that I'm taking a class on relativity right now, this has made our class even more interesting than before. Our professor sent us all an email a few days ago echoing what I thought before: it would be really cool and interesting if these superluminal neutrinos weren't just an experimental error but were the real deal, but in all probability it was an experimental error that probably won't be able to be replicated, given that it also conflicts with previous neutrino data from supernovas, and in any case it should be taken with a large grain of salt.
This also got me thinking, though, about public reaction. Though admittedly I haven't been following mainstream news outlets very much since returning to college, as far as I can tell, the mainstream news media have basically hailed this as a revolution without stopping to think critically about things like systematic error and stuff like that. Along the lines of the discussion I had along with Michael Nielsen and other members of the Society of Physics Students at lunch last Friday, I think the public is basically going to say, "Look at how sure scientists were about the speed of light being the ultimate speed limit, and look now! These scientists don't know anything!" If, somehow, the result is replicated, that opinion probably won't change. If it isn't (and that is my prediction), people will probably say, "See? Look at what a big mistake scientists made with that neutrino thingy so many months ago! Can they get anything right? Why should we listen to them and their so-called 'expertise'?" It's a sad side effect of public ignorance about how the scientific process works; as a friend of mine aptly said at dinner, scientists have been persecuted for many centuries now, and that doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.

4 comments:

  1. It's probably just me misreading but it seems like you are saying the measurement was of neutrino speed in rock exceeding only photon speed in rock. The paper clearly states that the measurement was of muon neutrinos in rock (or at least assumed to be travelling through rock rather than taking a short-cut through a spare dimension) moving faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.
    The paper is still up on arxiv.org http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897
    small quote from page 19
    "We cannot explain the observed effect in terms of presently known systematic
    uncertainties. Therefore, the measurement indicates an early arrival time of CNGS muon
    neutrinos with respect to the one computed assuming the speed of light in vacuum. The relative
    difference of the muon neutrino velocity with respect to the speed of light is:

    (v-c)/c = δt /(TOF’c - δt) = (2.48 ± 0.28 (stat.) ± 0.30 (sys.)) ×10-5,

    with 6.0 σ significance."

    Obviously the high likelihood is of some as yet unnoticed systematic effects.

    If the phenomenon is real there are various ways in which it could be reconciled with the Lorentz requirement of c as a hard upper (or lower) limit or even some c preserving Lorentz violating schemes (several suggestions already cropping up on arxiv).

    Or we could get some brand spanking new theory.

    The general press did however bugger up their reporting quite badly BBC Breakfast seemed to be suggesting that relativity was going to be cancelled and your mobile phone stop working.

    I even felt compelled to actually put a message up on my facebook wall for the day:
    "Relativity still works. I have a laser pen to prove it.
    Also when scientists ask other scientists to check their data and try to reproduce their experiment and results this is not some humbling act of contrite fools. That is what scientists are supposed to do, science."

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  2. @T_Beermonster: Huh, that's odd. I should keep that in mind. And speaking of debunking special relativity, the irony is that a lot of special relativity was used in the analysis of the paper, so if this result does somehow prove to be true, it just means that muon neutrinos are the few particles that violate Lorentz invariance. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. It means the impossible is now possible.

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  4. @Chris Kringle: That's only true if the results can be independently verified. Thanks for the comment!

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