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 Cruise-Katie 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. 

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  1. Nosybear says:

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

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    • Erik Dallas says:

      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.

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    • nobody.really says:

      “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.”

      What “credibility” does Kolb refer to? And why should anyone care if physicists have credibility in the eyes of the public?

      Perhaps Kolb refers to credibility that arises from acting in good faith. Certainly, the suspicion that someone might be acting in bad faith undermines the credit I am willing to extend to their assertions. But there’s nothing about the faster-than-light story to imply bad faith. To the contrary: Everyone involved in the story knew that they were exposing themselves to public ridicule by publishing the results, but they demonstrated sufficient faith in the scientific process to proceed nonetheless. (Ok, and perhaps some thought that they were actually making the biggest scientific discovery in nearly a century, so there may have been some ego involved, too.)

      Rather, I suspect the “credibility” Kolb refers to is the credibility that comes from being RIGHT – regardless of process. I suspect the public tends to look on scientists as the ancient Greeks looked on the Oracle at Delphi: as a source of hidden knowledge. But all you need are a few well-publicized errors, and that kind of credibility is lost – as well it should be.

      I would prefer that the public looked on science as a process of hypothesis-making, hyptothesis-testing, and hypothesis-debunking. I would prefer that the public recognized that errors are a necessary part of the process. I would prefer that the public NOT revere scientists for their hidden knowledge, but respect them for their capacity to make knowledge – data and analysis — public. Because when the data and analysis are public and replicable, “credibility” ceases to be an issue.

      The public debate over global warming is an illustrative example. On balance, I find the data and analysis supports the hypothesis that the Earth is warming, producing changes in climate. But that’s me. Others are able to review the same data and analysis and come to their own conclusions. Yes, people’s biases and preconceptions will influence their conclusions about global warming. Yes, this dynamic can be manipulated by opinion leaders. Yes, this dynamic may reflect a failure of the democratic process. But it does not reflect a failure of the scientific process.

      We should not expect – or even want – the public to embrace our views because some scientist has boldly endorsed them. Rather, we should want the public to recognize that the scientist’s role is not to boldly endorse, but to tentatively endorse – to stand prepared to abandon today’s convictions if tomorrow’s data requires it. Loyalty to process, not to any specific result, is the hallmark of the scientist. We should want the scientist to be credible in demonstrating loyalty and skill regarding that process.

      But we should not expect scientists to achieve credibility because he speaks Truth. Because today’s Truth is merely one of the infinite hypotheses that have not yet been disproven.

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      • Erik Dallas says:

        Having lived in a family of scientists I understand what nobody.really means by “tentatively endorse – to stand prepared to abandon today’s convictions if tomorrow’s data requires it. Loyalty to process, not to any specific result, is the hallmark of the scientist.” However I have also lived in the real world of the public, and know that to the public this translates into no science is proven therefor the public can ignore science or claim some science supports the disbelief in science and all the conclusions this reaches…

        To be relevant sciences needs to be able to be expressed in more certain terms. Even though there is room for error and room for improvement, when science is very certain or very accurate (to six sigma or some other strong certainty measure) this confidence needs to be expressed. When measuring the relative velocity of a car to the earth’s surface usually consideration of quantum mechanics and relativity are not considered even though these principals have replaced classical mechanics as the more accurate laws of physics. To this extent many further scientific discoveries might be viewed as quantum mechanical adjustments to classical mechanical problems, and in this sense the relevance of the six sigma answer may suffice as sufficiently good to be true in normal classical situations.

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  2. Jeff Nachtigall says:

    Kolb lost all credibility with the following sentence:
    “But I think the public is smarter than that…”

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  3. joelupchurch says:

    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.

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    • Tristan says:

      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.

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  4. Shane L says:

    “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.

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    • Travis says:

      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.

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      • Shane L says:

        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.

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      • bob says:

        Aren’t you just ignoring your own biases though?

        I remember an article (I thought from this website) a few weeks ago on how people interpret the political events of the day through their lens.

        In other words, if something good happens, it’s always because of their political side. Everything bad can be blamed on the other side.

        You only believe that the price of gas can’t be controlled because you don’t want to blame the current president. It isn’t a hallmark of understanding, it’s your political bias. Under Bush, most democrats blamed him for the rising cost of gas.

        It’s the same thing with the average person’s trust in science. When science suits their agenda, they will wholeheartedly endorse it. When it doesn’t, they’ll reject science outright.

        The irony is that people don’t realize they do it. Instead, they are so certain that their interpretation of the world is correct, that they would reshape the world around their view rather than change their mind. And scientists aren’t above this either.

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  5. Randy says:

    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!

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  6. Steve Nations says:

    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.

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    • James says:

      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.

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      • Steve Nations says:

        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.

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  7. Jason says:

    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: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/12/10/arsenic-bacteria-a-post-mortem-a-review-and-some-navel-gazing/

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  8. Andrew B says:

    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.)

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    • James says:

      “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.

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