Neutrinos: Physics Embarrassment or Great Public Outreach
On September 22nd the OPERA collaboration announced that neutrinos arrived at their detectors 60 nanosecond early. In about that amount of time, the physics world was all in a tizzy with comparisons to cold fusion fiasco of 1989, saying it had to be wrong and arguing over whether or not we should even be publicizing the published results. Well today a "sources familiar with the experiment" says the result can be blamed on faulty wiring.
Most physicitsts were pretty sure this would happen. It is so unlikely that anything can travel faster than the speed of light that there had to be some sort of error on the experimenter's part or some misinterpretation of the data. Well, it turns out that most likely it was a loose connection between a GPS and computer card that made it appear as if the neutrinos were breaking the speed limit. Seeing as the "source familiar with the experiment" is the only one quoted, I'm gonna wait to pass judgement till I hear from someone that uses their name. But it is pretty likely that this caused the result.
Considering the pedestals that such august researchers are sometimes placed, it's great that such details as this come to light. I agree with Brian E. Bennett. This is a great teaching example. It's also a classic example of, "All exposure is good; good exposure is better." This got people talking (and arguing!) about this affair. People all of a sudden said, "Wait. Science is exciting? Well, allllll-righty then!" While many might have no clue as to what a "neutrino" is, they can understand the basics of this problem. If it was an error, then it had to be one of two things: the distance between the source and detector was wrong or the timing was wrong. Okay, so it might also have been a combination of these two things. Frankly, I've found that racing fans get the concept faster than most. They understand distance = velocity * time. And that's what this problem boils down to. And if it's not an error in timing nor an error in distance, then you physics-types have a LOT of work to do!
If it does turn out to be an error, so what? That's science in action. Science goes through this self-correcting process all of the time. Most of the time it doesn't get such international press. When it does (as it did this time), milk it for all its worth. Anything that will improve the science literacy of our citizens is something I'm all for.
Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 10:56 PM
in that case you´d be sure the cesium clock performs for the job if it does at all.
Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:33 PM
When asked to comment about the recent finding that last Fall's apparent "faster-than-light" neutrino result was in fact due to an instrumental error, OPERA collaboration spokeswoman Emily Litella said only, "Never Mind."
Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:13 PM
Brian E. Bennett said...
I teach science (biology and chemistry) and I'm always trying to get students to ask questions. We were actually looking at light (wavelengths, etc) when the first story broke. I took a day and challenged them to discuss whether the results were actually possible or not.
I'm really glad they released the first result. While science "knows" a lot, there are still little mysteries out there that pop up from time to time. It's a chance for students to get excited about science in their future, seeing that not everything can be explained.
Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 7:15 AM