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If you’ve been reading any scientific-oriented news recently, you’ve probably heard about the neutrino experiment in CERN turning up some strange results. If you haven’t, you probably don’t know what neutrinos or CERN are. But hey, nobody’s perfect.
CERN, which stands for Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire—or in English, the European Council for Nuclear Research—is a massive complex of physical laboratories in France and Switzerland. It currently has 20 member states and eight observers including the U.S., and has spent a total of about $1 billion as of 2008.
One of the labs at CERN is capable of creating neutrinos, which are tiny sub-atomic particles that scarcely interact with matter at all. Roughly five thousand trillion have gone through your body in the time it took you to read this sentence, but since they slip through the spaces between atoms, not one of them hit you. Trying to stop them is like trying to keep out mosquitos with a chain link fence.
Luckily, there’s a detector in Italy that can detect them, and recently the speed of a burst of neutrons was measured. The result was deeply concerning.
The problem was that the neutrinos seemed to have gotten there about 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have, which is supposed to be physically impossible.
The good news is that the scientists involved are behaving as cautiously about their results as they should be. The measurements here are incredibly precise, and thus incredibly prone to error.
For one thing, the distance from the neutrino generator to the detector is about 780 kilometers, as measured by GPS. But if that measurement is off by even 10 feet, which is close to the limit of how accurate GPS can be, the results are meaningless. Even things like the tidal force of the moon and sun, which can flex the Earth’s crust by up to a foot, have to be taken into account.
The other issue is timing. CERN says their timing is accurate to 10 ns, which is more than accurate enough to notice a 60 ns discrepancy, but it’s very hard to keep track of exactly when the neutrinos left the generator and arrived at the detector to an accuracy of billionths of a second.
Based on everything we know about physics, this result is probably an error.
“I wouldn’t bet my wife and kids [that it’s wrong] because they’d get mad. But I’d bet my house.” said Chang Kee Jung, a physicist not on the experiment.
And that’s the beauty of science.
These 157 researchers—all of them at the top of their field—aren’t denying that their results are astounding. These numbers are incompatible with every aspect of modern physics, but the researchers aren’t bristling defensively when people like me, and those far better qualified than I am, pick them apart. They’re asking for help.
They’ve already published a 24-page paper explaining exactly what they did in the hope that someone might catch something they missed. Every particle physicist in the world wants to get to the bottom of this, and everyone’s willing to help everyone else to make that happen.
So what if it turns out to be true? Well, there will be massive and far-reaching repercussions about what we thought we knew; from the way stars work, to the evolution of the universe, to the very nature of the continuity of time.
But that’s the way science goes. We collect evidence and then try to come up with the explanation that best fits the evidence. If new evidence arises that doesn’t fit, sometimes the explanation needs to be revised.
Science isn’t dogmatic. It’s not a list of facts. It’s a way of finding out how the world works. When you work in a field that is based exclusively on the evidence you can find, there is no possibility of arrogance or irrational defenses of dead theories.
When the evidence changes, science has to roll with it, no matter how earth shattering it may be. That has happened countless times throughout history, and it may well happen again.
Will this be one of those times? We’ll have to wait and see.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Angus Bohanon at Angus.email@example.com.