"Take Heart, Einstein: ‘Earth-Shattering’ Science Is Relatively Rare?"
September 26th, 2011
What began last week as whispered rumors posted on the physics blog Resonaances grew to a roar of articles around the world about an experiment that has seen neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light.
The findings from the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-t Racking Apparatus (OPERA) collaboration at Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy show neutrinos arriving 60 nanoseconds sooner than expected, and have many eager sources suggesting the possibility of overturning Einstein’s well-known theory of relativity. While the prospect is exciting, can just one result really upend a century of physics?
“It really depends on what happens next,” said Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, curator of the Division of Physical Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Taking the historical view, Mac Low compares the result to other earth-shattering experiments from recent decades. In 1986, physicists announced the miraculous discovery of a superconducting material that worked at temperatures higher than were thought possible. But it wasn’t until many other experiments confirmed the finding that the original work could be seen as credible.
On the other hand, when an experiment in 1989 seemed to have created the astonishing feat of cold fusion, the findings were ultimately dismissed because no other team could corroborate the results.
“In general, things aren’t turned over by one experiment,” said Rob Plunkett, a physicist at Fermilab National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. “The whole process of science is by its nature self checking; one experiment always has to be checked with another.”
Plunkett is in a good position to speak on this, as he is co-spokesperson for the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment, which is one of only a few that can independently verify the original OPERA results. MINOS did in fact see several neutrinos back in 2007 that seemed to be moving faster than light, but dismissed the findings because the margin of error was too high. Still, Plunkett remains skeptical of the OPERA claims and said it would take six to nine months before his collaboration will be able to verify or contradict the findings.
But even if the faster-than-light neutrinos are found to be valid, that doesn’t mean scientists have to toss out their old theories. “Relativity and quantum mechanics didn’t throw away Newton and Maxwell,” said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
New data can expand our view of the universe, Krauss explained, but it doesn’t automatically invalidate well-tested theories from the past. For instance, when data in 1998 revealed the existence of dark energy and showed that the expansion of the universe was accelerating — a very unexpected result — it merely modified, not destroyed, the theories that came before.
For his part, Krauss also remains fairly unconvinced of the neutrino results. “When an experiment does something that violates everything we think, it’s much more likely that there’s simply a mundane explanation.”