"The neutrinos had travelled at 299,798km per second, 6km a second faster than the speed of light. 'It is a tiny difference but conceptually it is incredibly important,' said Professor Antonio Ereditato, an OPERA spokesman.
September 23, 2011 - Just another ordinary day? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Time will tell, but if the findings presented today stand up to the rigors of peer review this otherwise insignificant date could become one of the most pivotal dates in the historical timeline of scientific discoveries.
Today, in a seminar at CERN a group of European scientists who have been running accelerator neutrino tests on the CERN CNGS beam presented the results of their findings between 2009-2011. The findings show the neutrinos to be travelling faster than the speed of light.
As astounding as these findings are the words of the final paragraph in their 24 page paper ring with elegant humility.
"Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results."
These findings will certainly be subject to intense review and testing. Already many physicists are rallying to defend Einstein - generously assuming that there must be an error in the collection of the data, one is so certain of this that he has wagered his house on the odds that the findings are wrong.
But what an uncomfortable thought to consider that for more than a century we might not have been entirely correct in our understanding of the workings of the universe. However, if the findings turn out to be true, then they have been found because of Einstein and his theories. Due to his work, scientists have been able to make rapid progress in the fields of theoretical physics, to the point of giving birth to some tantalising theories about how our universe might be functioning. Those theories asked questions that needed answering and in due course CERN was built to answer those questions. Questions such as what is this dark energy that accounts for 73% of the mass-energy of the universe? It's an attestation to the beauty of scientific truth that even while we are looking for one thing, occasionally the right answer reveals itself to a question we didn't even know we were asking.
Back in 1905 when Einstein gave science his theory of special relativity, he gave us what we needed to travel our path to this point. Science will always guide us to truth - even if scientists take many years and many false paths in the interim. False paths that are followed perhaps because of persistance in clinging to personal beliefs or ingrained dogma (cue Johannes Kepler's lifetime efforts on his Platonic solid model of the solar system). To find truth one must be courageous, and be willing to accept incredible change; all while remaining open to their discovery even as it threatens to disassemble everything they believed and held to be true.
What must it have been like to be the first scientists to witness the above phenomenon? To catch a glimpse of the panorama of theoretical possibilities that briefly lay before them? Truth can be found - and will be found. With courage. With openess. And with humility and honesty. A brave new world of scientific thinking awaits those who are willing to question accepted paradigms. Tonight I shall celebrate these findings, and raise my glass to the scientists courageous enough to challenge everything they were trained to accept as fundamentally true.
'Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' - Carl Sagan
The final words shall go to Carl Sagan. If only he were alive today, what would he think of this discovery? I am sure he would advise to proceed with caution and skepticism. And so we should, for if and when these findings become accepted, we will have taken another step in our journey to truth. And into the unknown we will bravely venture, until we will once again have to reassess everything we thought we knew. Perhaps sooner than later.
Originally published on Paradigms Bend Sept 23 2011