Monday, 11 June 2012

Enforcing the cosmic speed limit

Last year there was a huge fuss in the media over a rather surprising measurement of the speed of neutrinos as they travelled from CERN to the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy.  The results seemed to indicate that the particles were travelling faster than what we believe to be the 'ultimate speed limit' - the speed of light.

Physicists were skeptical of the results (which is both part of their job description and a jolly good thing for a scientist to exhibit), but that is not to say that they were not also a little excited about the possibility of some new physics.  After all, this is exactly the sort of thing that we are all waiting for - something surprising to help us to explain the universe a little better.

I blogged about the way that people quizzed me at the time and about the various versions of the same question, dressed up as a statement.  "So! Physics is wrong then!" in 'Not so fast with the neutrino mystery'.

Sadly, this week it has been announced that (at least in this case) physics is not as wrong as people had made out.  In a press release from CERN last Friday, they state:

“Although this result isn’t as exciting as some would have liked,” said Sergio Bertolucci, “it is what we all expected deep down. The story captured the public imagination, and has given people the opportunity to see the scientific method in action – an unexpected result was put up for scrutiny, thoroughly investigated and resolved in part thanks to collaboration between normally competing experiments. That’s how science moves forward.”

The error was “attributed to a faulty element of the experiment’s fibreoptic timing system.”  That was one of the two possible causes that had been identified when I last wrote on this subject.

The good side of the story is that the general public have gained an unusual insight into the way that science progresses, and few people find this to be a disadvantage.

The sad side of the story is that a scientist, Antonio Ereditato - spokesperson of the Opera experiment - thought it was appropriate to resign from his post in March.  Of course public money has been lost in this experiment, but it has to be remembered that the only person who never made any mistakes never made anything at all.

The strange thing about the story is that is has not become a big story.  Evidently physics is only newsworthy when it seems to be wrong (or else I haven't noticed it when it was mentioned by the media this weekend).

No comments: