“Science Still at Work”

So maybe Einstein was wrong. I remember being told by my high school physics professor that a famous physicist was asked what will the world be like in a hundred years. The questioner was expecting an answer that involved flying cars, teleportation, the colonization of space, etc. The physicist simply replied, “Our physics will be different.” He simply meant that our understanding of the world would be much greater, and some of what we know now to be true will be known to be false. He could say that with greater confidence than describing still-yet-unknown technologies. So maybe Einstein was wrong. A team of physicists at CERN have reportedly discovered that subatomic particles called neutrinos have surpassed “nature’s speed limit,” the speed of light.

A meeting at Cern, the world’s largest physics lab, has addressed results that suggest subatomic particles have gone faster than the speed of light.

The team presented its work so other scientists can determine if the approach contains any mistakes.

If it does not, one of the pillars of modern science will come tumbling down.

Antonio Ereditato added “words of caution” to his Cern presentation because of the “potentially great impact on physics” of the result.

The speed of light is widely held to be the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his theory of special relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Whether it is true or not does not subtract from the educational value. It is a good reminder that all science is falsifiable, and that scientific laws can never be proven, but rather can never be disproven. When they are, they are no longer laws.

Second, science welcomes and is strengthened by debate. During a global warming debate, author Michael Crichton told the story of a team of 200 scientists assigned by the Nazis to disprove Einstein, who had left Germany and emigrated to the United States in 1933 after the rise of Hitler. When asked how he felt about the 200 scientists pitted again him, Einstein simply replied, it only takes one to prove me wrong. It is encouraging that CERN is in fact inviting scientists to challenge their results.

The researchers at Cern in Switzerland and Gran Sasso in Italy have tried really hard to find what they might be doing wrong – over three years and thousands of experiments – because they can hardly believe what they are seeing.

The publication of their results is a call for help to pick holes in their methods, and save physics as we now know it.

Third, dissenters should not be shunned, but welcomed based on the quality of their evidence. (Only those who offer non-falsifiable arguments should be shunned, as they can never be proven right or wrong.) A healthy debate can only strengthen scientific knowledge and understanding. In that same debate Crichton offered the story of Alfred Wegener:

The story of plate tectonics actually is the story of one person who had the right idea – Alfred Wegener.  He had it in 1912.  And it is the story of major scientists at Harvard and elsewhere opposing him for decade after decade until finally it was proven to be incorrect what they were believing.  So it is, in fact — when I was a kid I was told the continents didn’t move.  It is, in fact, perfectly possible for the consensus of scientists to be wrong and it is, in fact, perfectly possible for small numbers of people to be in opposition and they will be ultimately be proven true.

This does not mean that every belief that challenges consensus is serious much less true – whether it’s the current findings being debated at CERN or evidence proffered by global warming skeptics – but rather that they should be dismissed based on evidence, not emotion or self-interest. In the near future I’ll write about one such example: Gary Taubes has intelligently challenged the consensus of nutritionists and doctors on the question of why we get fat, and should be answered seriously. (I’ll give you a clue now. It’s not due to bacon.)

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