Faster Than Light: A Guest Post

(Photo: Dave Parker)

I recently had occasion to e-chat with Rocky Kolb, a well-regarded astronomer and astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Talk turned, of course, to the recent likely discovery of the Higgs boson — but, as Kolb talk about that, he raised an even broader and more interesting point about scientific discovery.

He was good enough to write up his thoughts in a guest blog post that I am pleased to present below:

Faster Than Light
By Rocky Kolb

After the news coverage of the past week, everyone now understands what a Higgs particle is, and why physicists were so excited about the July 4th announcement of its probable discovery at CERN, a huge European physics accelerator laboratory.  (The disclaimer “probable” is because it could turn out that the new particle seen at CERN is not the Higgs after all, but an imposter particle with properties like the Higgs.)

For a few days it was common to see, hear, or read my colleagues struggling to explain why the discovery of a Higgs particle is a triumph for science.  But after a week of physics in the news, the media has moved on to cover the Tom CruiseKatie Holmes divorce and shark sightings near beaches.  Perhaps all the public will be left with is a memory that there was a triumph for science.  Science works: theories are tested and confirmed by experiment.

I think that the CERN Higgs discovery was, indeed, a triumph for science.  However, the Higgs was not the only dramatic announcement at CERN in the past year.  But the other dramatic result is something many physicists would rather forget.

Many of my friends at CERN are still terribly embarrassed about last year’s erroneous reports that neutrinos travels faster than light. The report was based on an announcement by an experiment known as OPERA, which measured how long it took particles known as neutrinos that were produced at CERN to travel to a detector in Italy.  The experiment came to the very surprising conclusion that the neutrinos arrived 62 nano-seconds sooner than expected if they traveled less than the speed of light.  This implied that if a neutrino and a photon (a particle of light) raced 454 miles from Geneva, Switzerland to L’Aquila, Italy, the neutrino would cross the finish line about 60 feet before the photon.  It would not even be a photo-finish.  This would have been an even greater discovery than the discovery of a Higgs particle.  It would mean that Einstein was wrong—the velocity of light is not nature’s speed limit.  Not many physicists thought the result could be right, even after the first check of the experiment seemed to confirm the result.

A second experiment checked the result and found that the neutrinos respect Einstein’s speed limit, and then a third.  And a few months ago, experimentalists working on the original experiment discovered a loose cable (one loose cable among thousands in the experiment) that explained the faster-than-light result. Oops!  The mistake was sufficiently embarrassing that the head of the experiment resigned as spokesperson, but still remained a member of the experiment and didn’t lose his job. He was not fired as some reports indicated.

Although many of my CERN colleagues thought it was an embarrassment, I think it was a shining moment for science.  Physicists test our deepest held beliefs. Fundamental things, like “nothing travels faster than light,” are put to the test. We don’t take Einstein’s word for it.  The final word is from experiments.  Experiments are hard; it’s easy to make mistakes.  And when exciting results are announced, they are checked, scrutinized, re-checked, and confirmed or refuted by other experiments. And when a mistake is discovered, it is not covered up, but admitted publicly. And then we learn something and go on to test other things.  How many other endeavors in the world work this way?

My friends at CERN are worried that physicists lost credibility in the eyes of the public because of the “faster than light” stories. But I think the public is smarter than that and will understand the nuances. I hope so. 


Given the "debate" over global climate change, I do not underestimate the Public's propensity for misinterpretation, willful or not, of science.

Erik Dallas

I second that Nosybear.
Although Science is noble when it behaves as Shane highlighted in Kolb praised “And when a mistake is discovered, it is not covered up, but admitted publicly.” Fox News and the general public are much less than noble in their interpretation of such behavior. Further the propensity of biased news to give equal time to both sides of the story is a farce to promote their unscientific agenda. Tobacco lobby scientists and pro pollution “there is no global climate change” scientists are of the same corrupt bent, saying whatever their masters pay them to say. Unfortunately, these hired baboons combined with the noble scientific process of allowing for continual testing of all theories, is used to justify the greedy short sighted earth destroying political denial that humans and our pollution are causing global climate change.

Jeff Nachtigall

Kolb lost all credibility with the following sentence:
"But I think the public is smarter than that..."


I agree with Mr. Kolb. Science isn't a fixed body of knowledge, but a process. The process is designed to correct itself when it is wrong. This is a example of the process working.


Exactly, it's a process. Even the original paper that announce the "faster than light" findings didn't make the claim that they had overturned general relativey, they published the results with that their peers could review their findings and find any errors. They were explicitly recognizing the nature of the scientific process, and that making mistakes and letting other people correct them is a key part of that process.

Shane L

"And when a mistake is discovered, it is not covered up, but admitted publicly."

Exactly, well said. How much more respect I'd have for a politician, for example, who admits uncertainty and failures than those who try to hide their mistakes. I think it's a positive thing to see them put their hands up and admit they got something wrong.


They would have to first admit or recognize that a lot of things simply aren't within a politician's realm of control. Like the price of gas or job creation.

The problem with a politician admitting s/he was wrong, is that the next politician can hold that over his head and say "see what s/he couldn't do, I can do it."

I mean, I agree that I want to see a politician who is honest about not only the scope of their power in office, but honest when they make a mistake. But unfortunately I think the reality is that it would be political suicide to do so.

Shane L

Yeah, I guess that is the case, sadly. While I would have more respect, it seems that other voters have less. Or perhaps journalists tend to pounce if politicians show any sign of weakness and amplify it through the media.


And to think I was going to take Freakonomics off my iGoogle... Thanks Rocky for articulating so well your thoughts (that I happen share) on the recent "faster-than-light" debacle! Questioning the fundamentals only strengthens them or leads to new discovery, win-win!

Steve Nations

I agree, great post.

People often say, "Don't jump to conclusions." But scientists jump to conclusions all the time: it's called a hypothesis. The problem is being unwilling or unable to revise your thinking when new information surfaces, as well as being unwilling or unable to continue gathering new information.


But a hypotheses is, by definition, not a conclusion. It's a supposition, and we always remember (or should, anyway) that new information may show that it's wrong, or at least incomplete.

For instance, I may form the hypothesis that I can drive to the store today and buy a pound of blueberries. I know this is possible (since I did it last week), but do I form the conclusion that I will always be able to do so? Not at all: the car might not start, the road might be blocked, the store might be out of blueberries... So as you say, I have to keep changing my thinking as new information becomes available.

Steve Nations

You make a good point. But no conclusion -- just like no hypothesis -- should ever be definitive. You should always be ready to change your mind when new information arises. It's being unwilling to change your mind with new information that's the problem. And lets face it -- scientists with huge egos are just as bad as anybody.


The real lesson is about when during the scientific process the media should be involved. As others have said, the scientific process is great for the fact that it exposes mistakes, corrects them, and builds toward the next solution. However, the media is like the anecdotal blind men with the elephant, getting only a piece of the puzzle and attempting to describe the whole thing. It is good to have scientists and spokespeople, but it is important not to confuse their jobs or their skill sets.

Similar issue occurred in astrobiology recently - media hype got ahead of peer review:

Andrew B

People's problem with science (and I work in a scientific field) is that some interpret it as "The Truth" whereas many times it is overturned. For example estrogens in postmenopausal females is good, and people used to have bed rest for 6 weeks after a heart attack. I believe in the 1970s scientists were afraid global cooling was going to occur. And when some attack scientists who work for oil or other industries, don't they realize that scientists at universities are funded by establishment administrators who would tend to fund what they believe in so there is a bias there as well. Try being against the belief in global warming and getting a government grant or tenure at a university. (And I do believe global warming is probably occurring.)


"I believe in the 1970s scientists were afraid global cooling was going to occur."

That's an over-simplification. What really happened is that some scientists pointed out that sulfate emissions from coal-fired power plants would cause global cooling if they increased significantly. For this and other reasons (acid rain, etc) we got some pollution-control laws that limited the amount of SO2 that could be emitted, so the cooling problem went away - not because the science was wrong, but because people reacted to the science by fixing a potential problem.

Of course the science of sulfates producing cooling is still valid, only nowadays it's called geoengineering and touted as a way to counteract global warming, instead of addressing the cause.

Eric M. Jones

The FTL thing was unfortunate. Physics has good reasons to believe Einstein, and the announcement was a poor way to go. Better they should call the repairman than the press....The press conference was the BIG error. It was right that the experiment leader resigned.

"...And then we learn something and go on to test other things. How many other endeavors in the world work this way?..." Lots of fields that have a scientific basis work this way: Aviation (aeronautics), Chemistry, electronics, solid state physics, repair...

The NON-scientific endeavors are: Education, economics, social sciences, religion, history, philosophy, psychology, vitamins...etc. An endless list.

I, for one, was (and am) in the anti-AGW Global Warming camp, because I thought the issue had become political and cultish. (I am still waiting for the oil companies to send me a large cheque.) Reviewing back issue of Nature leads me to the conclusion that the science is not all in. Call me names....Cheeez......



Why is there such a rush to publish/publicize?

If I found something revololutionary, that went against every standard of thought, lets say teleportation of a human, I think it would be prudent to get independent verification before I went public.

It is tiresome for the public to hear all of these so called scientific findings, only to find them over overturned after further review.

Physics: cold fusion, not cold fusion. Faster than light, not faster than light.
Health: good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, bad coffee, good coffee, eat less eggs, eat more eggs. Eat fish, but not if you're pregnant.
Environment: global cooling, global warming. This species is endangered, oops the same species exists over there, but this is a 'unique' population.

And even when a consensus is reached, let's say global warming, we are told we must spend billions, maybe trillions, to reduce our carbon emissions. But we are not told that China and India are going to increase their releases 10 fold over what the west may save. To what purpose is this sacrifice? And all of our sacrifice will result in? Answer anyone? Anyone? Half a degree of a projected two degree increase. And the increase will continue.

And discussion and dissent? Not allowed. Scientists have been black listed for vearing from the consensus. Scientists lose funding if they don't tow the line.

How about scientists showing more care about their findings, and less of a rush to publish when they find something unusual? How about INVITING criticism to allow true debate? How about some honesty from the scientific community?

I don't see scientists as having lost credibility. You can't lose something you don't have.