CERN and colliding theories

Oct 10, 2011 By Lawrence M. Krauss

Findings that showed faster-than-light travel were released to the public too soon.

What do you do as a scientist when you know a research result that is almost certainly wrong is about to become a media sensation? That is the quandary I found myself in last month as I awaited the announcement from , the for , about particles called neutrinos supposedly traveling faster than the speed of light. I had already been informed about the experiment, whose findings, if true, would require an overhaul of physics: Our current understanding - based on Einstein's and consistent with every known physical theory and experiment - is that nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light.

I hoped that somehow the result would escape the attention of the world news media, but I knew better: A news conference had been scheduled. On the other hand - except for the die-hard would-be Einsteins who have already begun to write me suggesting that the CERN result proves their pet theories - I also knew that for the general public the claim would prove to be a momentary curiosity, forgotten along with much of the rest of yesterday's news.

First, why is it likely that the neutrino result has a mundane rather than earth-shattering explanation? To start, experiments with neutrinos are notoriously difficult - one can only "see" them through rare interactions with other matter. If one produces many neutrinos at a source, one cannot merely track them one by one but must detect the neutrino "pulse" by probabilistic means.

The claim that neutrinos arrived at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy from CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland on average 60 billionths of a second before they would have if they were traveling at relies on complicated . It must take into account the modeling of the detectors and how long their response time is, careful synchronization of clocks and a determination of the distance between the CERN accelerator and the Gran Sasso detector accurate to a distance of a few meters. Each of these factors has intrinsic uncertainties that, if misestimated, could lead to an erroneous conclusion

It's equally important that the as the ultimate speed limit has been tested numerous times in many situations over the last century, and it has held up. The predictions that flow from it have been correct, in certain cases to better than parts per billion. In addition, more than 20 years ago a colleague and I demonstrated that neutrinos and light traveled the 150,000-year voyage from a distant exploding star at the same speed to an accuracy of better than one part in a billion. This was derived from fact that 19 neutrino "events" - interactions - were observed in two underground detectors within four hours of the visual signal coming from the exploding star. If the same deviation that was claimed in the new experiment applied to the neutrinos in our experiment, they would have arrived instead several years after the visual signal.

This doesn't disprove the CERN result, but it means that for it to be true, physicists must come up with a pretty contrived way of having neutrino velocities vary under different conditions.

Given the potential problems with the CERN finding, the way it was presented to the world is cause for concern. A dramatic claim from a distinguished laboratory that turns out to be false reinforces the notion that somehow science is not to be trusted, that one can dismiss theories one finds inconvenient, even those whose predictions do agree with observations. This particular claim also reinforces the notion that scientific revolutions sweep away all that went before them. This is not how science progresses. Results that have withstood the test of experiment will continue to remain valid, no matter how physical theory evolves.

The researchers involved in the CERN result have not made exaggerated claims about their findings. They have merely pointed out an anomaly with their experimental result. Their paper will be examined and carefully dissected by knowledgeable referees who will decide if it is worthy of publication.

What is inappropriate, however, is the publicity fanfare coming before the paper has even been examined by referees. Too often today, science is done by news release rather than waiting for refereed publication. Because a significant fraction of experimental results ultimately never get published or are not later confirmed, providing unfiltered results to a largely untutored public is irresponsible.

The CERN result may indeed herald something new and remarkable. But if the overwhelming suspicions that greeted it are true instead, then the public presentation is unfortunate and misleading.

The at CERN is one of the most complex and remarkable machine humans have ever built, and it may one day reveal remarkable new insights into the nature of reality. To date, the careful analyses done by the major experiments there have not produced any new discoveries. It would be a shame for CERN, and for science, if its legacy in the public's mind is a result that will one day be shown to be wrong.

Explore further: Cracking the mystery of droplet evaporation

More information: Lawrence M. Krauss is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.

3.7 /5 (14 votes)
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User comments : 33

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blokeice
2.1 / 5 (8) Oct 10, 2011
You talk about an experiment showing that neutrinos travel at the speed of light. If this is the case, then how do you explain neutrino oscilation and the resulting idea that they have nonzero mass?
Daniel_Ehlers
4.3 / 5 (4) Oct 10, 2011
only haphazard news travels faster than light

one of my true loves is spreading the word of science, but as you say, we must be careful to not let science become an artifact of pop culture, it is to be respected and cherished for its honesty
Manitou
2.8 / 5 (9) Oct 10, 2011
Mr. Krauss, thank you so much for protecting our fragile, fickle minds from information.
Protecting funding of expensive scientific projects may be important, but do notice that we, so prone to misunderstand, are funding them.
Not encouraging the lunatic fringe may be important, but we are not only the fringe.
Your agendas may be laudable, but sitting on information because you and your peers know better than we do is not the way. Peer review is important, but so is free news.
Ultimately, we have to be the judge of source, value and importance of news, so get out of the way please.
s_voynick
3.5 / 5 (6) Oct 10, 2011
Mr. Krauss - "If the same deviation that was claimed in the new experiment applied to the neutrinos" in your previous experiment (i.e. the assertion they travel faster than the speed of light) then wouldn't the neutrinos have arrived several years *before* the visual signal?

In general, I see your points, but I also have a bit of a thrill that we will get to see some "real" science played out here, with the curtains open, and I'm not sure that's all a bad thing. The very fact that the researchers at CERN are *not* making exaggerated claims is a positive step to a productive process.

It also probably helps that the implications of this research are currently so far removed from daily life, that exaggerated claims are hard to make. (Contrast with the "cold fusion" debacle, where everyone immediately jumped to the idea of limitless, free power on your countertop...)
Noumenal
1 / 5 (3) Oct 10, 2011
Cmon, we all know what this was. It was a sensationalist media article in which the 'intelligent' would be interested. It was a way to take our attention away from all of the debt we have accumulated in our greed, that we are now figuring out ways of paying for using magic. It was nice, it was uplifting, it reminded us common people that there is beautiful science going on and that ANYTHING is possible. Sure, it's likely to be false, we all knew that in our heart of hearts, yet still it was something beautiful to hold on, something to treasure in these darkening days.
AWT
1 / 5 (5) Oct 10, 2011
My stance is, OPERA results are real and as such they should be published ASAP - the censorship will help to anybody here. IMO we can model the space-time (brane) with density gradient at the phase interface of two elastic fluids. After then a two kinds of solitons will appear: A) the one, which corresponds to photons and it spreads with slightly lower speed, than the transverse surface waves (which are serving as an analogy of light waves) B) the faster one, which corresponds the neutrinos and it will spread with slightly higher speed, than the surface ripples. The first kind of solitons results from coupling of surface ripples with longitudinal bulk waves of more dense phase, the second one from coupling of surface ripples with longitudinal waves of less dense phase. From this perspective the neutrinos would behave like the superpartners of gamma ray photons, i.e. like the lightweight photinos.
AWT
1 / 5 (5) Oct 10, 2011
From high level perspective we can say, the neutrinos lack EM charge, so they're able to penetrate through field of tiny pieces of EM charge (i.e. the CMBR photons) faster, because they cannot interact with it. I do believe, there is a dual effect, when particles with EM charge (like the electrons and protons) will be dragged with the CMBR field more, then correspond the special relativity. You can imagine it like sort of synchrotron radiation induced with tiny space-time curvatures, which are manifest like the CMBR photons. The electron flying through such field will be accelerated and decelerated irregularly, which would lead into radiation of synchrotron radiation and space-time drag. This drag would manifest just for material with fast moving electrons, like the superconductors and it can be observed like so-called tractor beam. http://en.wikiped...am#2000s
B0b
4.6 / 5 (13) Oct 10, 2011
Lawrence M. Krauss sez,

> It would be a shame for CERN, and for science,
> if its legacy in the public's mind is a result that
> will one day be shown to be wrong.

Remember when the Hubble space telescope was launched with a flawed mirror, and whole project took intense drubbing in the media? Then after the optics were corrected, what a stunning new view of the universe we had! That early fumble is now barely remembered.

What the Public needs is to see science in action, warts and all. Science depends on its practitioners being BOTH open-minded AND skeptical. Too often the public is spoon-fed a sanitized story that scientists rarely make mistakes, and that once a theory is "proved", it becomes unchanging Truth. Science today is at risk of intimidating kids out of even entering this grand enterprise.

Knock it off!
maxcypher
5 / 5 (7) Oct 10, 2011
While I sympathize with Mr. Krauss' concerns. I agree with most of the commentators that exposing the raw methodology of science is actually an avenue to a deeper understanding of the scientific process. I hope everyone realizes that this article is an op.ed., i.e., someone's opinion and not to be judged as a statement of fact.
StarGazer2011
3.3 / 5 (7) Oct 10, 2011
Mr Krauss, you dont understand that science is the process of making claims, and having them knocked down by experiment. We in the public understand this generally, it seems that some people would like to pretend that 'science' as a process never leads to incorrect conclusions, but only an idiot would believe that.
Science is a process and the more minds aware of the current questions and controversies the better for our progress as a species.
No more hiding the decline please.
dtyarbrough
1 / 5 (5) Oct 10, 2011
You said nothing can travel through space faster than light. Does that include the galaxies at the edge of the universe. Scientist claim to see these objects moving away from us at greater than the speed of light. Since Einstein said you can't add the speed of the medium, how do we explain them.
Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (2) Oct 10, 2011
"Scientist claim to see these objects moving away from us at greater than the speed of light." - divarbrough

Sorry. No reputable scientist makes that claim. You are mistaken.

Vendicar_Decarian
3.3 / 5 (6) Oct 10, 2011
"Findings that showed faster-than-light travel were released to the public too soon." - Lawrence M. Krauss

Don't get your knickers in a bunch. Every article I saw presented these results as an anomoly which was probably wrong. So even anti-science elephants should have gotten the message.

The scientific community should not worry about how science is presented to the public, as long as the science being presented is reported accurately - warts and all.

The only exception to this rule should be in those areas where there are public anti-science campaigns being run by corporate or private organizations. Examples of such anti-science propaganda include the campaign against climate science by oil interests and Libertarian/Randites. The other would be the campaign against evolution by religious zealots.

bluoxe
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2011
CERN called, they want their dogma back.
theon
1.7 / 5 (6) Oct 11, 2011
And what about the Great Theories of our times, like: the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics; its multiverse interpretation; our beloved Theory of Everything; Emergent Gravity; and String Theory as the one and only salvation? They do not discriminate science from religion, and thus sell science as a sort of religious affair, be it that they ardently refuse to admit this.
jsdarkdestruction
4.7 / 5 (3) Oct 11, 2011
Findings that showed faster-than-light travel were released to the public too soon."

yet he doesnt actually explain and/or prove the specifics. no one else has yet either. this was released partly because the researchers looked and looked and couldnt find an explanation for the results. of course it was going to make waves, thats good. the more interested people are in it the more people will focus on it and try to figure out whats going on.
Chromodynamix
4.5 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2011
Never mind the premature announcement.
You can't put a value on the publicity generated and getting people to think and be aware of "Big Physics".
This uplifts many people who have been dumbed down, and can only have positive effects.
Lars
4.5 / 5 (4) Oct 11, 2011
@Vendicar, I agree with half of what you said. Most articles presented these results with due caution, as the researchers themselves did. Science is an imperfect, human endeavor, and should be reported as it happens, not filtered to make Science appear less fallible than it is. Some initial results turn out to be misleading... the public can handle that. What we *don't* like is coverups.

An open process protects all of us. It's unfortunate that someone who favors openness would create exceptions in order to dismiss their philosophical opponents as anti-Science... in which case they believe Science should be protected from public scrutiny.
Mayday
3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 11, 2011
I completely disagree with the point of view of the article. I reject this demeaning attitude about "the public" held by so many scientists. I am a member of "the public" and I take offense. Scientists need to take a closer look at the history of science. Your high horse is much more rickety than you think. Please take your self-important grandizements elsewhere. They turn my stomach.
Aflynn
3 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2011
Who cares what 'the public' may think? So what if they get excited and get their hopes up, the point is that they got excited about science in the first place.

It's no secret in the science world that certain theories held as truth do not play well with each other and that a new model is needed to explain how matter interacts on all levels. I would prefer a world of wannabe-Einsteins than a world without.

Let's show the world the scientific method in action.
cgallaway
3 / 5 (2) Oct 11, 2011
A few issues: The author, as others pointed out, basically suggested that if neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, then in the author's experiment, they would have been slower to get to Earth? What? The faster something goes, the longer time it takes to travel the same distance?

Secondly, the author doesn't really suggest any reason for a difference between his real world test and the CERN experiment. I could be wrong, but I would suggest that perhaps neutrinos in space might be slowed down by the gravitational pull of various bodies that they travel by, while the CERN experiment, I understand, doesn't really have those same gravitational forces.

Basically, the op-ed piece shows that the author is more concerned about losing the prestige of his 20 yr old experiment and possibly losing his position as "top dog" in the field, rather than furthering science and introducing science to otherwise disinterested people. I believe the technical term for such behavior is Jealousy.
cgallaway
3.3 / 5 (4) Oct 11, 2011
And a little more in depth about the public...of which I am a member: We need to hear a lot about these experiments, their successes, failures, purposes, conclusions, significance of the results, etc. If we do not see these things, then the collapse of science is easy to predict: Funding will be cut for what the public feels are "useless" experiments. This would be by electing politicians who would cut the funding. If the public does not see scientists as being open minded, that is forming their opinions based on data and then reforming their opinions based on new information, the public will lose confidence in and will not trust science. Also, the world will lose out on the ability to encourage scientific thinking among our youth. If the breaking edge of science is not able to be viewed by the public, we lose out on encouraging intellectual curiosity by all scores of students and therefore contribute to the increase of anti intellectualism that plagues our societies.
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (2) Oct 12, 2011
i like the way this comment section went. it makes me feel really positive about "the public" and science, I was nervous it was going to be a bunch of bashing "the public" for their "ignorance".
For a real world example of how excited people are, I had 7 or 8 of the 15 people who i work with who are not science that much that know that i am were excited about it and wanted to talk to me about it. The last time i can remember anything close was when they were talking about the number of black holes calculated to exist in the universe and that was just a few of them.
hush1
1 / 5 (1) Oct 12, 2011
lol
A wordy article. Let's summarize:

Dear all concern,

Preemptive strikes are fashionable.(See original wording)
If you are collateral damage, tough shit.

Your loving Krauss.
Kiss, kiss.
jsdarkdestruction
not rated yet Oct 12, 2011
i just noticed i forgot to put into when i said " who are not science that much that know that i am" above. it should be "who are not into science that much that know that i am"
Jim Burrill
1 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2011
The OPERA results and Einstein's relativity can both be correct as long as the definition of "c" is re-evaluated. When light travels through air or water it travels slower than "c". So to measure "c", the speed of light was measured "in a vacuum". Why, until now, hasn't anyone said "Wait a minute, according to quantum mechanics, there's no such thing as a vacuum, so that measurement must really be slower than 'c'"?

In a vacuum, a quantum soup of particles is constantly coming into & out of existance. Light interacts with these particles. Nutrinos interact with matter alot less, so the speed of nutrinos in the earth's crust could actually be closer to "c" (but still a bit slower). The speed of neutrinos in a vacuum would begin to approach the real value of "c".

In addition to these temporary particles, a vacuum may also contain a Higgs field, which could be another factor in slowing the speed of light below the real value of "c".

Jim Burrill
jburrill {at} gmail {dot} com
bluehigh
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2011
Presenter: You say you have a new theory.

Miss Anne Elk: Can I just say here for one moment that I have a new theory about the brontosaurus.

Presenter: Exactly.
[long pause]

Presenter: Well, what is it?

Miss Anne Elk: [looks around, concerned] Where?

Presenter: No, no, your new theory.

Miss Anne Elk: Oh, what is my theory?

Presenter: Yes.

Miss Anne Elk: Oh, what is my theory that it is. Well, you may well ask me what is my theory.

Presenter: I am asking.

Miss Anne Elk: Good for you. My word yes. Well, what it is that it is - this theory of mine. Well, this is what it is - my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine.

Presenter: Yes, I know it's yours, what is it?

Miss Anne Elk: [looks round again] Where? Oh, what is my theory? This is it.

(with respect to Monty Python and the brontosaurus)

Call it what you like. A Higgs field, virtual particles or spacetime. Its an Aether.
hush1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2011
lol
Pick any arbitrary number. Label this 'c'.
If not exceeded, then do not pass go.
The monopoly of theory.
Daleg
1 / 5 (3) Oct 14, 2011
I thank Mr.Krauss for pointing out what is indeed a serious issue in Science and Scientific research today. That is that scientist's want to make thier results appear important to justify the funding of thier projects, or show that they are delivering some "Bang" for the buck. While the CERN physicist's did do a comendable job with thier release,and pointed out that they hope that others will find where they may have gone wrong, I agree with Mr. Krauss that the main way "Scientific Research" is conducted was in this case violated for "political" meaning publicity reasons. Peer review is an established methodology used to prevent poor results from leading to diffusion and heartache in scientific research. Funds and funding are limited and proportioned according to "merit" of the effort, if this result proves false and that causes those who fund these enterprizes to lose interest, or to state that the effort is not worth the money, what then. We already lost the SSC and Tevatron.
tigger
not rated yet Oct 16, 2011
"...except for the die-hard would-be Einsteins who have already begun to write me suggesting that the CERN result proves their pet theories..."

Lol, and there's no shortage of 'die-hard would-be Einsteins' on this site apparently :P
hush1
1 / 5 (1) Oct 16, 2011
lol tigger

"...I also knew that for the general public the claim would prove to be a momentary curiosity, forgotten along with much of the rest of yesterday's news."

Krauss, I forgot what I wanted to say.
Now you can vouch for your statement. Just quote me. lol
Severiano
not rated yet Oct 17, 2011
At the moment a scientist is unable to accept what is new and it is feasible, it is time to retire...
rawa1
1 / 5 (2) Oct 17, 2011
You could fire whole scientific community regarding the cold fusion in such way... I'm not saying, it shouldn't deserve it, as we are losing an incredible amount of money in this way.

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