So physics is broken. Or at least that’s what you’d think having heard much of the comment on the news yesterday that researchers have detected neutrinos appearing slightly earlier than expected. So early that they appeared to break the speed of light, a feat which contradicted Einstein’s theory of relativity, which is much respected, and indeed provides a cornerstone to much modern physics.
In some ways, therefore, this could be a big discovery. But researchers are more wary. Indeed, as stated repeatedly on the CERN website, and by physicists worldwide, they want someone to check their figures. Having published their report online for free, they’re looking for other knowledgeable experts to be able to point out the additional error in, for example, the GPS system that they used, or the fact that they failed to take into account a random solar flare.
The experiment they did was quite simple in some ways. They made a lot of tiny particles called neutrinos at their laboratory in CERN, and fired them at Italy, presumably aiming to take out Berlesconi on the way. These particles are almost undetectable, and pass through us from space all the time. However, in Italy they have a device that can detect neutrinos.
The experiments have taken place over several months, and are certainly not rarefied instances like Fleischman and Pons’ cold fusion. The setup has been checked repeatedly, with a timing mechanism that is as accurate as it could plausibly get using modern technology. The distance is a long enough to minimize error as much as possible. The whole experiment should work.
Yet accidents happen. Take, for example, the time that the LHC‘s forefather, the LEP, was brought down because a researcher had left a pair of empty beer bottles in the path of the electron beam. There could quite plausibly be something completely obvious that they are missing. In an extremely complex procedure, we can’t assume that they will have got it perfect first time, which is why they are passing the research on in the hope that others will find a reason.
For the public, this is a great time to understand the ideas behind theories, laws, proof and other such scientific terminology. Especially when areas of the Christian right wing are moving to attack much of verified science, we all need to know what these terms mean. When we say, for example, that Darwin’s theory of evolution is only a theory, that’s because science does not deal in absolutes. When Einstein published his theory of special relativity, it was only an idea. But as these ideas are tested, with a lot of rigour involved, we realise that we can describe the world this way, and also that it makes predictions about the way our world works.
This is an example of a theory in dispute – and a great and time-honoured theory as well. If theories such as this can be disputed, of course so can evolution and the big bang. But then we don’t have evidence that disputes them. And, as shown here, the first thing we should do isn’t to immediately start dismantling the older theory. We must ensure that our new evidence is up to scratch first. And if it is, we must look for alternative explanations – string theory might perhaps give us some of those. If we can find none, then yes, Einstein will be overturned.