Of Particular Significance

Question to Laypersons: Your Views on the Neutrino Saga

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 04/05/2012

So, many of you have probably been following, to a greater or lesser degree, the story of the OPERA experiment.  This is the one that  found that neutrinos sent from the CERN lab near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso lab in Italy (where OPERA is located)  arrived earlier than they expected.  Of course there were, from the beginning, two natural explanations:

  1. Einstein was wrong and neutrinos travel faster than light, or
  2. OPERA made a mistake, and their expectations were off.

The news media made a huge deal out of the first possibility, while the vast majority of professional physicists assumed, for various reasons we can discuss, that the second possibility was almost certainly correct.  It is now pretty clear that possibility #2 was right; first OPERA admitted it had found two mistakes which made its previous results invalid; then its competitor down the lab, ICARUS, announced it had seen neutrinos arriving just as expected from the same CERN neutrino beam; and finally OPERA itself revealed that it had managed to characterize its errors in detail and now, re-analyzing its data, finds (preliminarily) that neutrinos do in fact arrive as expected.

Now, with this backdrop, I would like to ask YOU a question or two.  And by “you”, I mean non-scientists.  I would like to know how seeing this episode unfold changed (or did not change) your view of science, or physics, or particle physics.  Or of science journalism.  What’s your perspective on all of this?  What surprised you most?  What annoyed you or turned you off or excited you?  Are you disappointed in or pleased with the scientific process as you saw it unfold?  Are you more suspicious of or less suspicious of scientists and/or of science now that you’ve seen this happen?  I think these are things that many scientists would be curious to learn.

Granted, since you’re reading this blog, you’re a member of a non-representative sample of the public.  But I still think it would be useful to hear what you have to say.  So, please.  Comment.

[p.s. As BBC reports today, the LHC now has stable data-quality proton-proton collisions at 8 TeV of energy per collision; data taking will start at slow collision rates and ramp up over the year.  Here’s a post and a following article on why 8 TeV is better than last year’s 7 TeV.  As usual, BBC says correctly that 2012 will be a crucial year for the search for the Higgs particle, but say incorrectly that this will be the year that the Higgs is found or not found; that statement is true only of the Standard Model Higgs particle, the simplest possible form of Higgs particle.  For an overview of what I mean by this, read my guest post at the Cosmic Variance blog.]

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134 Responses

  1. Matt, having only discovered your site recently, I’m a little late responding to your excellent, and superbly informative, articles. Being a fan of extra dimensional theories, I was enthralled when I first heard of the superluminal neutrinos that supposedly were taking extra dimensional shortcuts, as was suggested in the popular press. But your articles quickly dispelled such silliness, pointing out how totally inconsistent the OPERA results were with every other experiment ever conducted.

    But I have to confess I still clung on to the hope that maybe it was still real until I saw your detailed post on how the measurement error came to be. As an electronic technician for over 30 years I quickly appreciated the problem from your post and the oscilliscope diagram. As a result I deleted an old link, on my webpage, from before the problem was solved, and explained what happened from a technician’s point of view: http://starflight1.freeyellow.com/IndexA.html#EXP

  2. I think the CERN’s Opera experimenters, should of reviewed the data with many scientists to determine any error or ambiguity before announcing any results. There are always many physicists and scientists ready to challenge the known theories as we saw with the proposed cold fusion finds at the University of Utah. I think CERN’s announced findings were a little early. It is dedicated people who want to be recognized as leaders in their fields and have found something of interest and they announce their findings before the test and results were challenged. Let the testing and discoveries continue, we are “boldly going where no man has gone before”. Science discoveries will always have stumbles, twists and turns, and as always, test, retest and challenge the results before you publish.

  3. I learned that popular sciences blogs were best when they talk about science only.

    I read a lot of mainstream news media in a few languages, and _all_ of them reported quite accurately the situation (ie. Opera has some strange results, and asks the community about their strange results), while some of them, -grasp- dared to asks the obvious question that everyone should at least ask, about the speed of light and the implication that those claim would have it it happened were true. Pretty professional and pedagogical job.

    On the other hand, i can’t count how many science forum and blogs (including comments) were blaming those “media” endlessly, most often without substance or clear justification. After this episode, i wondered whether scientists read the same media as normal people.

    As for the scientific process itself and the trust i have in it (aka reason), that episode changed nothiing at all.

    As for the science management, i don’t feel neither that this episode raised any major lesson or would particulary limit my trust in science funding.

    1. That’s interesting that you say this. I remember listening to the BBC on the day following the announcement. One minute was given to describing the result and the caveats. Something like ten minutes was given over to discussing all the implications of what faster-than-light travel would mean, with interviews and all sorts of other stuff. Most of the implications described were highly speculative or some were wrong. And there was no discussion at all of the fact that most scientific experiments with radical results turn out to be wrong — in other words, no context, no historical analysis. So that didn’t impress me very much.

  4. The point is that the scientific community reacted in the right way to this fiasco, right from the beginning. So, to me, the image of science and of the scientific method was preserved.

    Carl Sagan’s quote says it clearly: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and the OPERA team did not provide such kind of evidence (like for instance, measurements of cerenkov radiation linked to the hyperluminic neutrinos to support their claim)

    Kind regards, GEN

  5. There’s a whole history of exciting scientific discoveries that went bust, from N-rays to cold fusion, and, much as the OPERA researchers would like to have avoided it, the FTL neutrinos result will be a part of that list. But the difference between their behavior and the others is stark. The N-rays people had to be debunked by an outsider, and the cold fusion people never admitted they were wrong and seemed to actively avoid obvious checks. The OPERA people obviously maintained throughout an awareness that they might be wrong, and that makes all the difference.

    1. Absolutely right. When you make an announcement of something radical, you want either to be correct or to find and diagnose your own mistake and fix it. OPERA saved a lot of face, and demonstrated their professionalism as an experimental collaboration, by doing this.

  6. IMO:
    I lost pretty must all remaining respect for science journalism. It was tiring how they were transparently trying to make something of nothing.
    I was disheartened when the CERN guy resigned over it, I don’t see how he did anything wrong as I understood the sorry it went:

    Cern: “Erm guys (addressed to other particle physicists), we’ve got some werid results from our latest experiment that are clearly wrong, but we don’t know why. Here’s a paper showing what we know and don’t know, we’ll keep digging; but in the meantime you may find this interesting where we are up to.”
    Science Journalist: “OMG scientists find proof that Einstein was wrong!”
    Cern: “Now we’ve had some time to dig into it we’ve found a few things that might explain it. Time to run some more experiments.”
    Science Journalist: “ZOMG! Scientists seek to prove that Einstein was wrong!”
    Cern: “Nope, looks like we have the fault, more experiments needed to check but we think we have it.”
    Science Journalist: “Scientists admit to their incompetence, can’t even connect up a simple cable.”
    Cern: “Wait yep we’re almost there to proving the source of the problem”
    Science Journalist “Shocking that it takes months to run a state of the art research facility, we want our answers now”

    Sorry but trial and error are how science work. Cries that they should not have published until they knew what the problem were are for me understandable but wrong. Science can only work by the honest, frank and timely reporting of genuine data. To imply they should have hidden their reults because idiots might take it the wrong way is plying to the nincompoops who are making this the big deal out of genuine science that we saw here.
    So I was pleased that the scientists involved got to the bottom of the problem in a timely and open manner. I am sad and disheartened by the reporting
    A sad incident and really has me blaming not the scientists involved or the general public but the state of both science education and science as portrayed in the media. We are not idiots but most science media treats the unwashed masses as such.
    e.g. I am fed up with most science programs going over the same bits of GCSE science over and over again, why can’t we have some A level or degree level stuff or shock horror why can’t science programs get into the sort of stuff you talk about on here? It may be beyond rocket science but when well presented it is totally comprehensable, or if not comprehensable at least interesting.

    1. Just a comment to correct a misconception that was also created by the media (and by CERN, for hosting the original presentation) — neither of the guys who resigned works at CERN, and indeed the OPERA team has no members from CERN. CERN provides the neutrinos, but all the problematic equipment used in the measurement was built by the OPERA team in the Gran Sasso lab.

      Also it’s important to understand that the two scientists didn’t resign from the experiment, just from the leadership of the experiment.

  7. Polarity misalignment on the fiber interface is hard to create a matrix for testing. We had a similar problem on the space station fiber optic modules. Took a long time before they figured out a way to test for polarity. Because the space station is so long even a slight loss of intensity via polarity mismatch was unacceptable.

  8. The Opera fiasco did not alter my appreciation of science. I was pretty sure that the result was incorrect. Then I read the “Starts with a Bang” blog, which explained the experiment, the announced results, and the contradictory results from prior supernova observations. This cemented my view that there must be an experimental error.

    I was astounded when the problem was identified. Especially since they ran a follow-up experiment on the same equipment with tighter neutrino packets. How could they neglect to check the equipment ? Obviously (in hindsight), the result should never have been announced without the equipment being re-checked, and a calibration test being done.

    What annoyed me most was the coverage given to wacky ideas from theorectical physicists that might explain the results, when virtually no coverage was given to the preceding conflicting results, and the likelihood of there the anomaly being due to an experimental error.

    I no longer use mainstream newspapers for science stories, as they inevitably get it wrong. I now use Science blogs such as this one.


    1. To be fair, I’m sure the OPERA people checked the equipment in certain ways. I suspect they must have convinced themselves, by performing other tests, that there couldn’t be any problems on this part of the timing chain — and probably even thought that the fiber optic cable had been checked — but perhaps without doing a full cable-by-cable walk-through by a set of multiple experts. Something made them over-confident… still don’t know what.

  9. In the times when Paris Hilton and “The Housewives of (insert community name here)” garner more familiarity and interest with the general public than cutting edge science, I think that any hype surrounding press coverage of a science story is a good thing.

    As the head lines referred to the possibility of faster than light particles, the public was given a reason to pause on the way to the celebrity section of the paper and read about science. Though it may be for the totally wrong reasons, people who might not have otherwise known were introduced to the LHC and OPERA and may have even pondered for a short time how neat science is.

    The modern day enemy of science is not an inquisition but rather at best a general ambivalence and at worst a total ignorance of its existence. If the general public doesn’t know about or care about some of the leading edge science that is being conducted today, it then becomes too easy for officials to cut funding to these programs.

    At the end of the day, science did not suffer from the “faster than light” headlines but rather gained. The scientists recorded some results, they went back and did some investigation and they figured out that there was a problem with the measuring equipment. The scientific process was sound, the laws of Einstein were upheld but more so, the public was interested.

    So I say to science, air your mistakes and the quirky findings that are discovered along the way. It takes a lot to compete with the latest sports scores and the new spring fissions, and reading “Scientist uses $10B Super Collider to Reheat Day-old Coffee” might just do the trick.

    I love your site. I hope that as new stories come out in the news that people will be driven by curiosity to dig deeper and when they do, that they come across this treasure-trove of knowledge that you publish.

  10. Matt, thank you for the opportunity to vent. I think there are lessons here not just for physics but for human nature in general. It seems clear that at least initially OPERA thought that it had 3 years’ worth of solid data indicating FTL neutrinos. The indicated v/c-1 ~ 2.5×10^-5 was not impressive but its magnitude was completely consistent with past experiments. PAST EXPERIMENTS?! What past experiments? That was my first reaction. I was totally unaware of any past experiments in this regard, and the fact that the OPERA results were right in there lent a certain air of authenticity to what otherwise seemed to be an Earth Shaking claim. I was particularly impressed with a 1979 (!) paper that was published in Physical Review Letters, which tested the velocity of muon-neutrinos from 32 GeV out to 195 GeV. The data did indicate a best fit for v/c-1 ranging from about 4×10^-5 to 10×10^-5 as muon-neutrino energy increased. However, subtracting bias’s it was possible that even the worst case data point could reduce v/c-1 = 0. Whenever I mention this experiment I always mention this bias business to be evenhanded. However, truth be told, I am not evenhanded; the bias established in the paper frankly struck me as conjured up specifically for the purpose of reducing the worst case data point to v/c-1 = 0. I pictured the authors of the paper having to come up with the bias in order to have their experimental data (potentially indicating v > c for muon-neutrinos) published in the Physical Review. (Their best fit equation completely ignored the bias, and an earlier paper by some of the same authors assumed a much smaller bias). OPERA’s data indicated v/c-1 = 2.5×10^-5 at average muon-neutrino energy of 17 GeV. Thus OPERA’s data seemed completely in line with the PRL paper from over 3 decades earlier. Thus, despite the Einstein shaking implications the OPERA data seemed possible.

    Now of course all this, as well as my warped logic, seems in doubt. It was apparently just a coincidence that OPERA gave results that were in line with the 1979 paper and it seems the editors of PRL were right to insist on having bias’s in the 1979 paper – if that is even what happened. I thought we were on the verge of the 1st Great Physics Revolution of the 21st Century. Einstein is one of my heroes, but I am no fan of the limitations imposed by Special Relativity. For a few months my hopes that something better was coming were high. Now my hopes are dashed. To make matters worse my hopes were dashed by a nothing more than a bad cable connection. As Matt has noted we now effectively have two up-to-date experiments (ICARUS & OPERA) indicating v/c-1 = 0 for high energy muon-neutrinos. Still I would like to be put COMPLETELY out of my misery; just out of curiosity I would like to know the energies of those 7 neutrino events from ICARUS and despite the ‘mystery solved’ reassurances from everyone and their grandmother I would like to see a re-run of OPERA (minus the bad cable connection of course).

    I could say a lot more but many of the people who commented already have hit the points I would make. Just want to mention one…

    Blaise Pascal: “Cohen-Glashow was on shaky-ground with me anyway because to me ANY superluminal theory is shaky because we have no experimental evidence.” Agree with you 100%.

  11. Matt, isn’t the BBC’s statement “this is the year the Higgs is found or not found” true for every year? In 2011 the Higgs was not found. In 2010 the Higgs was not found. In 2009 the Higgs was not found. Etc… Presumably the BBC meant to say “2012 is the year they find the Higgs, or find that there is no Higgs” — and then you could correct them and say this applies only to the standard Higgs.

  12. I never believed in the measurements (easy to say now).
    The reason was quite simple: why this low speed difference ?
    Why not 25% or 50% or 300% increased speed ?

    What I am more worried about is the 6 sigma declaired significance.
    It may affect my view on the result of other experiments.

  13. I did know already how things works in science, the thing that most surprised me is how much people took the experiment as simply true and did’nt contested it’s results. A local magazine loved OPERA’s issue, because it was their chance to put a big “EINSTEIN WAS PROVEN WRONG!” in the cover, the backcover and in half of the pages and sell the most sensacionalism they could…

  14. I teach philosophy of science at a university but in the relevant sense I’m a layperson. I thought the OPERA people were properly circumspect and I didn’t believe for an instant that the neutrinos were really FLT. The reason is that I have seen this claim “Einstein proven wrong — time travel may be possible” over and over again in my career. In fact it seems to come up about every three to four years, from the heyday of tachyons to claims that quantum measurement must involve temporally retrograde motions. It is a study in irrationality, a movement from “wouldn’t it be cool if X were true” to “Scientists have shown X.” And I’ve watched the way cynical academics have used all of this speculative science fiction to encourage journalists to support them, and then used it to drain millions of dollars in research grant money to fund “the philosophy of time travel” and then steered graduate students along the same path. And every time a mistake is made like the one at OPERA these people come out of the woodwork and make announcements to the press, only to fall into silence when the mistake is revealed. But in the meantime, in the publics mind — particularly as they rarely ever see the retraction — we are all just one step closer to the Star Trek hyperdrive, and to visiting and killing our younger selves. And the money has been deposited in the bank.

    So for me it is part of a longer pattern where science is now presented to the public by overexcited adolescents saying what is “COOL!”. I can’t help but think that the gentlemen scientists of an earlier age, Dirac, Einstein, or Newton, would be a bit appalled to watch this clownish behaviour. Not that the OPERA scientists were guilty of this — but I think they knew precisely the monster they were feeding.

  15. After I heard about the “Speedy Neutrinos” in the media, I watched the official presentation from Opera, to see what it was all about.

    I did not understand most of the technical details of the presentation, but there where a few things that became clear after watching the presentation.

    1. They made a measurement.
    2. The measurement is not what was expected.
    3. They will repeat the measurement, and ask others to do the same measurement independently to confirm or disprove their own measurement.

    No one was jumping up and down saying that Einstein was wrong, or anything else equally sensational.

  16. To be honest, I have such a low respect for science journalism that I came to source like your blog for information rather than pay any great heed to journalists.

  17. well, it was a possibility of something big, something (we) never thought about. But, unfortunately a mistake. No big deal, it was not a cruical problem of humanity anyway.
    As to safeness of einstein this was funny, kind of “protect our values” holywar in press, but who cares, GR works at given conditions, it is clear that not everywhere, and not for everyone.

  18. I wish there were more scientists getting involved in the physics blogging community.

    Before the web, it was hard trying to get information without going to university.


  19. It was 100% obvious to me that it was almost certainly a measurement error, but the OPERA guys had looked hard and failed to find it.

    In conversations with co-workers, I cited Asimov’s famous quote a lot: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…'”

    I believe that it made an excellent point, which is relevant to climate denialism and the like, that scientists don’t suppress results that are “wrong”. They check, and double-check, and then say “this is what I got.”

    As I said at the time, thee was a 90% chance it was a simple measurement error. A 9% chance that there was some novel and interesting physical effect which was causing an erroneous measurement, and would be a worthwhile discovery, but not the obvious one.

    And then there’s that delicious 1% chance that a tiny exception has been found to the cosmic speed limit.

    Those probabilities are obviously very crude, but I think the point was clear.

    Maybe I didn’t read as much of the “popular press” as some people, but I avidly followed the various results as they were discussed on blogs and the like, and I thought it was wonderful.

    The result was they measured the neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. So either there’s something they don’t understand about neutrinos, or there’s something they don’t understand about their measuring equipment. The latter, of course, is far more probable.

  20. When I was with NASA, I published an in-house paper showing how methane gas emissions from farms might explain UFO sightings. Later, I was interviewed by Time Magazine, who mined and misquoted what I said during our interview to sensationalize rather than rationalize claims for extraterrestrial interference in human affairs. Since then, I have learned to accept confabulation, exaggeration and myth-building as one of the major functions of social communication. I would compare this function of communication with that between exciter neurons and inhibitor neurons in the left brain acting to confabulate a rational story from the more specialized, hormone-driven, fear-oriented, non-linguistic, unconscious or sub-conscious experiences (experiments) in the right brain when presented with data from the environment. Gazzaniga called the left brain “the interpreter” because it translates and prioritizes action and observation into language and the possibility of delay and deception, thus smoothing out the possibilities for impetuous and catastrophic change. Hence, I have enjoyed your blog and the OPERAtic drama immensely. Just as I acted to perpetuate the myth of NASA’s integrity against the intellectual laziness and supernatural beliefs I associate with non-scientific people, you are acting to perpetuate the myth of CERN’s trustworthiness. Given that OPERA (and you), by communicating so openly via the internet in parallel with CERN’s other-media attempts to establish it’s “brand” among human institutions, and opening itself (yourself) to whatever feedback you can muster, you are certainly helping the scientific aspect of human nature influence public belief in behalf of rationality. Well done!

  21. If we were to believe many journalists all the time we would believe that the ISS orbits ~400 METERS above the earth, that the speed of light is 186,000 MPH, that the galaxy is 30,000 kiloparsecs wide, etc.
    I’ve learned ages ago that where a (mainstream) journalist chooses to place the decimal point in a string of digits is usually a guess.
    The stuntman Evel Knievel summed up journalists a long time ago, as (people?) prowling around with a slice of bread in each hand, looking for a piece of meat to slam in between.

  22. Layperson here, whom follows many physics blogs:

    Seems most of the [expert] folks I’ve come to trust all said, from the beginning, this was likely to be false (the majority expected a systematic error of some sort). Although, at the same time, it seemed that all the ‘fringe type experts’ dusted off their own pet ‘theories’ and tried to show how it could explain the FTL neutrinos and how, really, they new it all along/predicted it years ago (etc., etc., etc.) I didn’t mind this and actually enjoyed the speculation. Even as a layman I knew not to get too invested in the idea that superluminal neutrinos or the more exotic ideas that ‘predicted’ them were true.

    I didn’t think it was a big deal that they released their results, either. They seemed to be pretty clear, at least to this layman, that the results were probably false, but that they needed help from the physics community finding were they went wrong. It seems the hype came from some science journalists and certain fringe scientists. At the end of the day, the truth prevailed and even a non-scientist like myself learned something(s) new from all the discussions and debates. I don’t think this was a bad thing. Seems the scientific method worked in the end, lay consumers of science news/information learned something new… maybe even some of the experts learned a thing or two, too (be it the science or the communication there-of.)

    I was entertained and enlightened at the same time. :two thumbs up:

  23. Concerning the Opera story I think I saw the normal scientific process at work exactly as it should be.
    There are only two things which temporarily annoyed me:

    1. Certain media and journalists who are only interested in selling sensational stories with HUGE titles, ignoring or not caring about the scientific truth and important facts one has to know to propperly asses what is going on

    2. People who now use the fact that they have seen this (in the course of the scientific process NOT extraordinary!) mistake happen as an opportunity to troll against science in general and particle physics and physicists in particular (I think everybody knows what I mean …)

    However, the reports from Prof. Strassler belong to the things I liked and which made it interesting and worthwhile for me to follow the story.

    Thanks for this 🙂

  24. In my opinion the mainstream media did a wonderful job of blowing the whole thing out of proportion and for a few days after the initial announcement my Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds were buzzing with statements of “everything we know is wrong” or something like that. Once it was determined that neutrinos actually obey physics as we know it today I was somewhat irritated that the story didn’t get nearly as much coverage and the same people who initially spread the word about FTL particles weren’t taking back their earlier comments.

    As for me personally, when I had first heard the news I was initially skeptical but none the less thought it would be cool if neutrinos really could travel faster than light. As both an engineer and lover of science I know how complicated large scale experiments can be and how even the littlest things can trip you up. I definitely enjoyed your coverage of the whole ordeal Matt and I’d have to say it’s only reinforced my desire to keep learning about physics and how these particle physics experiments are performed.

  25. By not asking your question precisely you are confusing your readers and probably yourself. What does “Einstein was wrong” mean? Einstein cannot be wrong regarding the speed of light because he assumed it.

    Physicists are being fools here, because they are claiming to measure what they decided to keep constant by definition.

    Consider this headline: “Physicists discover that 1 meter is not 1 meter”. Sounds silly, do you agree? To claim to have measured a change in the speed of light is as Onionesque.

    In physics the speed of light is a unit just like the meter and it is used as a unit conversion factor in physics equations. Any observed change in the speed of light will be an error of measurement and the accepted value of the speed of light will be adjusted. Physicists never read their own history so they do not realize that Einstein assumed the constancy of the speed of light.

    There is a similar situation in astronomy regarding the astronomical unit. Astronomers decided to keep the Gaussian constant k constant by definition and define AU by it. It is no longer possible to measure the value of k, it is a defined quantity.

    If you keep the speed of light constant by definition as a unit you cannot measure a change in the speed of light.

    There is a long standing synergy between the media and physicists. They both need each other so physicists will continue to feed the media sensationalistic “discoveries” no matter how absurd, rather, the more absurd the better. Every physicist knows that if they can get their name with a clever quote in the New York Times this will bring them more professional points and career advancement then 100 papers in peer reviewed journals. So I think physicists are being dishonest by denying their professional relationship with the media.

    1. Firstly, the speed of light is not constant by definition. It’s value, and the fact that it’s a constant, is an experimental fact. Secondly, what was measured here was the speed of neutrinos, not light.

      Why is it always the most ignorant who shout the loudest and are the first to accuse others of being “fools” and “dishonest” ?

    2. There is a fundemental misunderstanding here. Humans did not “define” the speed of light. Photons in a vaccum travel at a constant speed in any inertial frame. That speed can be described using various units, but that doesn’t change anything about the actual properties of photons. It’s like having an argument about whether a car that went 60.00 mph actually went 26.82 m/s. The car’s velocity has not changed, only the way we described it.

      I think possibly you are confusing the fact that the meter is now defined using the speed of light. The reason that was done is because of the very fact light has a finite, measurable speed.

        1. The wikipedia article clearly states the correct situation: the meter is defined from the speed of light and the definition of a second, not the other way round. You do not read very carefully; this is perhaps why you are deeply confused.

          The speed of light is simply the ratio of the distance traveled by light in vacuum, during a particular time interval, to the duration of that time interval. Period. How you want to express it (in terms of meters per second, or inches per moon orbit, or earth-radii per year), is up to you… and that is the only place where humans come in.

      1. Harry — I agree with you. The speed that light travels is not something that humans can “define” or have any say in. Words can be defined, the speed of light cannot: it travels the speed it does regardless of us. All that we can do is choose units that would express that speed. We do this by taking units for length and for distance and by expressing that speed in those units. But there is an equilibration in the choosing of units that allows the speed of light to correct the measure of the metre and the seconds. Because of this “meter” is no longer defined in the way it once was.

        Clearly distinguishing between the things and processes (stuff we have no control over) and the words that we can define, and the units that we can temporally stipulate, would go along way to making this debate make more sense.

    3. Zeynel — I am afraid you are mistaken, in two senses; your complaint is both wrong and irrelevant.

      It is irrelevant because what was being measured was the speed of neutrinos relative to the speed of light. This is no more difficult or conceptually complicated than determining whether your daughter runs faster than your son or vice versa. You simply time them as they travel between two points and determine which one took longer.

      Said another way: the time it takes for neutrinos to travel from CERN to Gran Sasso, DIVIDED by the time it takes for light to travel from CERN to Gran Sasso, is a pure number — it has no units. And so it makes no difference whether physicists use the speed of light as a unit; that ratio of times doesn’t care. Either that ratio is bigger than 1, equal to 1, or less than 1 (within experimental uncertainties.)

      Said yet another way: if you set the speed of light equal to 1, then the speed of OPERA’s neutrinos is either bigger than 1, less than 1, or equal to 1. The OPERA experiment attempted to determine which this was. It is a perfectly well-defined physical question.

      Your complaint is mistaken because it assumes you can legislate constancy of a physical quantity and try to use it as a unit, and still get consistent answers even if the thing you insisted was constant really wasn’t. Suppose instead of using the speed of light for our unit, we used the speed of sound in air. Why not? Well, the speed of sound depends, for instance, on temperature. So we would soon discover that the lengths of all objects, as measured by how long it takes sound to travel between one end of the object and the other, would be (in these units) all increasing and decreasing together as the temperature of the air varied. This would even be true of buildings and pieces of paper and your own height, and other sorts of things whose lengths you would not expect to depend on temperature in the same way. Observing this correlated temperature dependence would force us to make a choice; do we keep this set of units and insist that distance depends on temperature, or do we give up on the view that the speed of sound is a suitable unit?

      In other words, if the speed of light in vacuum were not a constant, but we took it as a unit anyway, there would be experimental consequences. Those consequences have not been observed.

      So no, taking the speed of light as a unit does not make it impossible to check whether it is consistent to treat it as a constant. If it isn’t constant, taking it as a unit just moves the non-constancy out of the speed of light and moves it into other measurable quantities.

      Perhaps you disagree. If so, then the only thing we agree on is that of the two of us, one of us is a fool.

      1. Matt Strassler wrote: This is no more difficult or conceptually complicated than determining whether your daughter runs faster than your son or vice versa. You simply time them as they travel between two points and determine which one took longer.

        According to this document http://proj-cngs.web.cern.ch/proj-cngs/Download/CNGSDGVE/cngsdgve.pdf this is a very complex experiment contradicting your claim above. Do you have a resource that you can let me know to support your claim that this is an experiment which is no more complicated than timing which of the runners crossed the finishing line first?

        1. You are putting words in my mouth. I did not say the OPERA experiment was not technically difficult.

          The experiment, conceptually, is very simple. You measure a distance, and a time, and divide the distance by the time. That’s it.

          Technically, measuring the distance and the time across 730 kilometers, accounting for all sorts of effects, some subtle, some not, is exceedingly difficult. It required novel techniques, which almost worked, and now, with fixes, appear to work.

          None of this has anything to do with the objection you raised concerning the use of the speed of light as a unit. That was a conceptual objection — and it is irrelevant.

  26. I always assumed that the results were (almost certainly) incorrect, based on my own very limited understanding of the physics involved and on the apparent stance of the OPERA team who seemed to be saying “We don’t understand where we went wrong – can anyone suggest why?”. As I understand it they never claimed that the result was incontrovertible fact.

    I read your blog and others mainly because serious commentators seemed to be taking it seriously enough for it to be worthy of further comment and explanation. The non-scientific press, of course, either didn’t care about the cautious approach, or didn’t understand, or just wanted to stir the pot with a good headline grabbing fuss with a good chance of being able to take another swipe at Science later when the result was disproved.

    I felt that the most interesting aspect of this was the sociological insight into the scientific community: there was a lot of speculation; a lot of serious discussion; a number of papers trying to explain the result; there was apparently a disagreement within the OPERA team on whether to publish or not; heads rolled afterwards.

    We are all human and all make mistakes. Were we all caught up in the hype?

  27. I posted this in another article, but I thought it is worth bringing up here.

    Discussions I’ve had with non-science educated adults have made me realize something you and your colleague may find important. The average adult has no idea how cutting-edge physics theories are tested! They think it is like “philosophy,” by definition untestable, which places it on the same ground as religion. This view is likely something perpetuated by the media and/or pop science. Educated people know generally what a particle collider is, but they have absolutely no idea what it actually does and why that is significant! Nor do they know about the stunning science being done by spacecraft like WMAP, Planck, JWST (hopefully), etc.

  28. Matt, I don’t know if I count as a “non-scientist.” I am an engineer and a scientist, although I’m not a (practicing) physicist, and I don’t do “big science” ala OPERA. But for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

    I don’t know what all the fuss is about. The OPERA group said from the beginning that they understood their data was extraordinary, and counter to well-established theory, and would need re-testing and verification. The experimental setup was very complex, they were completely open about the situation, and they asked the world scientific community for input and suggestions. They followed up in a responsible way, discovered and reported a problem, and now we understand how they got the results they got.

    Yes, in retrospect and 20/20 hindsight there was some more checking they could have done before announcing their preliminary and puzzling results (as exactly that!), but I don’t see that they did anything that was irresponsible or unprofessional. Quite the contrary.

  29. IDK how much of a layperson I am. I’m an undergrad with a minimal physics background, but the FTL neutrinos were reported while I was studying both a module on relativity and philosophy of science. Interestingly enough, both my profs discussed them differently, and my classes were pretty excited about it all. The physics professor was a bit more encouraging of the excitement: he felt that it would be interesting *if* it were true. Key operative term: if. The philosophy professor was a lot more sceptical, to the extent he told us that he’d buy us all a drink if it didn’t turn out to be a mistake.

    Personally, I’m pretty glad about how this turned out. I think it’s a very good case study of how science *is* supposed to progress, that they figured it out in the end, and the wrong stuff gets thrown out. There’s a lot of rigour, a lot of checking, and I’m glad we got to see things coming under extensive scrutiny. I do wish OPERA hadn’t jumped that quickly, but I think it’s understandable, and it’s not as if a great deal of checking doesn’t go on. The problems of systematic error, of course.

    Honestly, I was a bit surprised by the media hype. Realising it’s a perfectly normal episode in science seems sort of a disjunct from exactly how much everyone was throwing into the fact that it was *Einstein*.

  30. Having read public reactions here in my country (in Balkans), I’ve concluded that this turn of events mainly damaged public image of CERN. Because people (at least in my country) failed to distinct CERN from OPERA (mostly due to media irresponsibility). And also it somewhat increased public skepticism toward (cutting edge) science in general (which is highly presented among the masses in this part of Europe).
    As for me, my view of particle physics and science in general has not changed, although I must say that I’m surprised that they came out in public so early without completely checking the instrumentation.

  31. As an engineer I appreciate the difficulty in getting real things to work correctly in the real world ( a former colleague was fond of saying that “Mother Nature is a bitch”). So I am not sure how hard to come
    down on the OPERA team other than that perhaps they
    should have been more circumspect in their announcement.

    As for the media I have long been disappointed in science reporting in the “mainstream” media (I subscribe to the NY times) and generally rely on more specialized publications such as Nature and Science for science
    info in general and, recently, this blog for high-energy physics in
    particular. Experience has shown (I see a number of comments referring to cold fusion) that the best thing to do is to be patient, ignore the hype, and wait for the experts on the front lines to sort it out.

  32. I’m not EXACTLY a normative lay-person (I was an undergrad Physics major; I’ve taken graduate courses in General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Differential Geometry, Probability; written software for astro-mechanics; designed and developed computer IO subsystems…) but for what it’s worth:
    – My first response was doubt that the news was real – thinking either that the popular media got it wrong, or that someone was grandstanding and making if-y claims either from a bogus (“cold fusion” type) experiment or incorrectly interpreting/extrapolating data.
    – Then I learned who was making the claim, did some checking and read some of the caveats from the various sources. With both the neutrino source and the detectors being buried in separate caverns far below ground, and wondering how they were determining both time and distance so accurately, I just figured everyone would wait to be sure the measurements could be reproduced. [Thanks go to Matt and this blog for help filling in such details.] My hunch was that the results were incorrect, but the calibre of the people who said “we have checked, and can’t find anything wrong with the experiment” made it seem like a real possibility. So, I figured, just wait for attempts to replicate and see…
    – I wasn’t all that surprised by the “New Scientist” type responses claiming that relativity was wrong and we had just been mistaken for the last 100 years. What did surprise me was:
    — Most of the reporting was of the “Einstein, who everyone believed was so great, got it all wrong” variety: It was a story about Einstein, not really about his theory. “Einstein. He’s so last century.”
    — There were quite a few “science commentator” types who seemed anxious to get on-air or in print somewhere or other talking about how big a deal this would be if it holds up. But some almost seemed gleeful about the new possibilities that would open up if super-luminal speeds were possible. There was a kind of science fiction aspect: “We hoped and always suspected that we’d find a way to travel faster than light, and now we finally HAVE! So let’s get on with it!”
    — What no one explained (that I heard or read, anyway) was just how fundamental it is that (1) c is constant, not variable; (2) c cannot be exceeded; and (3) what it would mean if that were not so. [I think I did see one piece on how our definitions of time and length depend on c, and that might have to change, but that was about it.] No one seemed to want to talk about how all the experiments that have validated Lorentz transforms and a constant speed of light could be explained.
    It wasn’t just the sensationalistic nature of the reporting, but the almost complete lack of factual explanation of the ramifications if the experimental results were correct, that surprised me. Not even from so-called “knowledgeable” scientists (with the obvious exception of Matt, here), until people like Cohen and Glashow published their work refuting the whole idea.

    I have to agree that I’m surprised by both Opera’s use of non-state-of-the-art (i.e., relatively slow response time) interfaces, with no backup nor any re-calibration of the timing system, and by their not doing end-to-end tests to validate their timing system before releasing their results. I’m even more surprised that none of people who reviewed the experiment and vouched for the results noticed such failings. But here’s the biggest negative from the whole episode: As others have mentioned, this falls into the hands of the “scientists can’t be trusted” brigade. Everyone from creationists to global warming critics to those who want to cut science funding use situations such as this to justify their skepticism of science and scientific results (especially when those results don’t match their preconceptions). While in many ways this was an object lesson in how science _should_ work, because of the political/procedural missteps, it will be touted as an example of just the opposite.

  33. Im a PhD student in a different field of physics so Im not a complete layperson. Anyway, I agree with many of the earlier commenters: For me, the OPERA saga was purely a good thing. First, I found your blog because of it and I have learned a great deal of things here. Thanks for creating it! Second, it got me more interested of particle physics overall and I dont think the interest will fade now that the puzzle has been solved. Of course, if this kind of media craziness about dubious scientific results were (even) more common, the effects would turn from positive to negative.

  34. I think that it is a pleasure to see that some scientists can admit to being only human. As for the need for two important members of the team to resign speaks of internal strife in the team. Another instant of middle management failure , in my experience a plague in the fabric of our civilization. Must admit that despite evidence to the contrary I have always felt that the limit of the speed of light to be false. Bah, missed a chance to go round saying “told you so”.

  35. I am somewhat disappointed that one can’t take the results of a scientific experiment for fact that overrules a theory. Even at the world’s top labs there is no objective way of knowing 100 % what is actually measured. Thus one trusts ICARUS results simply because they fit the theory and not because one could trust their equipment and methodology as such.

  36. Since careers may be ruined by this fiasco it seems everyone is getting in line to sweep the  episode under the political rug.   The instruments are so complicated & sensitive that it makes me wonder how they can be trusted to yield any result except what agrees with established theories.  If a theory challenging result occurs, scientists tweak the apparatus until they get the expected agreeable result.  

    Everyone knows that light travels the same speed in all reference frames & that this invariance forces an upper limit on velocities.  It’s not obvious that the upper limit is exactly light speed.  It could be a little more.  

    Everyone knows that physicists have a high opinion of themselves & that they only let the public in on their activities to excite them into supporting the funding they need.  They play on people’s ignorance & lack of math tools to create unfathomable mysteries like “wave/particle duality” that demand resolution ( and, of course, funding). 

    People don’t like being played,  so they enjoy it when pompous egg heads make fools of themselves.  I suspect his fiasco isn’t over.  It may be just starting.

  37. Ha! Lucky number 63!
    Okay — Your questions were an excuse to write a full post in response.

    My planned post on determinism, uncertainty, and predicting the future wasn’t ready yet…so you kind of saved me this week.

    Here are my thoughts — kudos to the scientists, need more from the journalists — http://wp.me/p1SONx-8z
    Great questions, Matt.

  38. On one hand I enjoyed reading about the whole issue and was rather skeptical from the start so the fact that it turned out to be an error didn’t really surprise me.

    On the other it is a bit alarming that such a simple problem was not detected and especially in such a large collaboration. I mean ok, here the result was in clear contradiction of relativity so the error was bound to be found eventually, but what about all the other measurements? Are they also this sloppy? What if a similar error leads to a result which seemingly agrees with our current theories but is still wrong? Would it be detected then? And how long would it take?

    All in all this episode erodes somewhat my trust in experimental physics.

  39. I apologize if I am breaking your rule again, Prof, but I think this is relevant to this article.

    “{ ‘Standard experimental techniques exist to determine the propagation speed of forces. When we apply these techniques to gravity, they all yield propagation speeds too great to measure, substantially faster than light speed.’ The speed of gravity, ‘if it is a force of nature propagating in flat space-time [is] not less than 2 x 1010c.’ (That is, not less than 20 billion times the speed of light).}”

    … inner quotes are from Dr. Tom Van Flandern … and outer quotes from Brian Fraser.

    Flandern claims of using “standard experimental techniques” and deduces such a large speed for gravity. I know this has been refuted but cannot find any literature. I have a lot of respect for Brian Fraser and he seems to be in agreement with Flandern.

    My question is, and this is why I think the two experiments, (gravity and the neutrinos) are related, do you think that pier review is impeding our progress in advancing our knowledge or is it the only way of evaluating and ensuring that we stay within the limits of reality? if we cannot have any confidence in experiments then what?

  40. “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

    i think this applies to scientists too. from what i can tell, opera was pretty convinced they’d found ftl neutrinos. why not tell the world? because you might be wrong? please. taking risks is half the fun. i really doubt if any of the opera team will be hurting for work anytime soon so it wasn’t even really that big a risk.

    while the reputation of science may have taken a minor nick, i think the interest in physics this drummed up was well worth it, even looking at this blog alone. sure, mainstream news may be incompetent, but i bet some kid somewhere said “you can prove that einstein is wrong? cool!” (even though we haven’t yet).

    finally, i will say you, matt strassler, should not be afraid of attracting the wrong crowd to this blog. you started this blog with a mission and “highly interactive layperson readership” was not part of it (i don’t think). if that’s what you want, you’ll need a graphic designer for the site, a publicist to get you ad placement and interviews on tv shows and many, many incredibly clever tweets. if you just want to present physics in language a layperson COULD understand, the comment thread today should not be disappointing.

    if you’re genuinely interested in what the “layperson” is thinking, you’d probably be better off going to a mainstream site, reading the comments and possibly commenting back. but don’t forget to subtract out the background.

  41. My intial thoughts on the “discovery” where – “oh yea, we finally broke the speed barrier!!!” But it just seemed by so little that it could easily be an error, so i had mixed feelings.
    On learning the facts, I just sympathize with the scientists involved – mistakes happen. Any one would have been excited by a discovery like that. So on we go looking further to perhaps one day breaking the speed barrier.

  42. I was another who was disappointed with the poor sensitivity to the PR fallout.

    There’s an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the masses and how they choose what to believe. For scientists, science has already won that battle as it clearly deserves. But they seem to take it for granted. For many others science is just another mythology, and generally not their favorite. It tells them what to believe rather than letting them believe what they want. Those who represent and practice science are considered arrogant, shallow, or non-spiritual. This segment of society rejoices in scientific errors and it’s overreaches like OPERA. And they exploit them to fuel denialism and nihilistic fervor. The majority of the public may well be more moderate but they harbor skepticism of both science and antiscience factions and lack the motivation to dig deeper.

    The stakes are real. Babies die regularly from diseases easily prevented by vaccines available for decades but eschewed by ideological anti-science freaks. Climate calamities and overpopulation are forthcoming. And most importantly, science (evidence and experiment) has yet to be recognized and accepted as arbiter of contentious disagreements. 

    It’s neither fair nor productive to fault the public when they misunderstand or misconstrue stated facts. That’s what they do. They don’t have the interest or patience to do otherwise. And the media cannot be expected to be an unfaltering single-purposed intermediary. The PR is the responsibility of the scientific community. It’s not enough to simply do good science.

    OPERA was a monumental and historic failure in this regard, mostly due to it’s time in history, and despite being not especially notable or exceptional as a scientific ‘failure’ (in fact not a failure, but a normal productive exercise of the scientific process). 

    I disagree that we should view the OPERA saga optimistically as a revelation of the scientific process and its inherent ability to self-correct. Though true, those who accept this were not the problem. Science must be calm and confident and authoritative when it reaches out to the masses. Open and intelligent are insufficient. Being right is not the end-all of scientific responsibility, being perceived as such is a greater responsibility and one that scientists must take seriously in order to continue to receive public funding and have a voice in public policy. 

  43. As evidence of my “slightly better than Star Trek” grasp of the science, on 2011-11-18 (upon the second flurry of reporting), I wrote to a private group:

    “Hmmm… could some mineral mechanism in 730km of rock be accelerating
    particles? It’s not as though we can compare ~light~ through rock.

    Who’s to say they didn’t site the whole thing spanning a wormhole!?!

    It’s transdimensional. Nothing to measure here. Move along.”

    So, it’s fairly clear I didn’t find the prospect of FTL particles too upsetting. Nor did I expect CERN to confirm it… rather, that they erred. QED.

    Personally, I was a surprised to see ANYTHING in the media (since I can not imagine any of the people behind the research welcoming that) and surprised to see so MUCH in the media (since I can not imagine more than one percent of the population having the slightest idea what it all meant).

    My greatest concern was that the sequence of revelations would be exploited (by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and a host of other devious bastards) to undermine trust in the scientific process.

    That concern remains. I haven’t heard of such hijinks… yet. But at SOME point — trying to pretend evolution doesn’t exist, or climate change can’t happen, or whatever bullshit they strive to produce — you can be certain they will blurt out a bizarre fantasy that includes, “In 2011, scientists said you COULD travel faster than light! Later, the same scientists admitted they lied about it.”

    Please: I did NOT say that. But assholes like Limbaugh and Beck WILL. It fits their model and modus operandi perfectly: distort a small fact into a big lie, then repeat it until the huddled masses memorize it.

    That’s the one frightening thing in it all. Slight fools in the media made a big deal out of a tiny flaw in one complex process — which means much bigger idiots will escalate it into a claim that NO science can be trusted.

  44. In light of reading the other replies, I’ll elaborate on my reactions to the superluminal neutrino saga.

    I am a layperson, albeit an interested and knowledgeable one. I do happen to have a friend in the T2K collaboration (as well as an acquaintance in the D0 collaboration). He has given up asking me why I didn’t go into physics instead of software (integral calculus was a hurdle I only muddled through. If I can’t do the maths, I can’t do the physics).

    I read physics blogs, and my initial awareness of the initial OPERA results came from one of them — Tomasso Dorigo, Chad Orzel, I don’t remember exactly, and it was probably more than one. I’ve noticed that important results tend to be rumors in the physics sphere a day or so before the official annoucement, and while the details are sketchy (and sometimes wrong), there’s usually a buzz going on. I’m glad that the physics blogging community lets me be at the edge of that buzz. I knew about the announcement at CERN early enough that I could follow a “live blogging” of the meeting. I appreciated how the 2nd half of the meeting was questions of the sort “Did you check X?” and answers of the sort “If you look back at slide n, and page m of our paper, you’ll see we did check X, and how.” OPERA was very thorough, and also very cautious, in their results.

    My initial thought from following the physics blogging sites and reading the paper off the arXiv was that it was an intriguing result, but almost certainly wrong. I played at the game of “what did they miss?”. My bet was that it was a subtle software glitch: a delay parameter was calculated with one sign convention and added in with another sign convention (turning a 30ns delay into a 30ns advance) for instance. Something which, as a software engineer, I know can be hard to catch, especially if you are breaking the code up into chunks to catch.

    At the same time, there was a lot of good natured “what if this is true” speculation going on. I would explain to friends that the consequences of it being true would be that the fundamental underpinnings of the last century of physics would be wrong and would have to be rethought.

    I noted the flurry of theories coming out of three sorts: How it could be true (various varieties of quantum gravity and string theorists), how it couldn’t be true (Cohen-Glashow being the biggest names), and what the mistake was. A lot of the “they didn’t take into account X” theories were shot down. I considered the ICARUS-1 results to be shooting down Cohen-Glashow (or, more accurately, if OPERA’s observation was accurate, then the ICARUS-1 result was not compatible with Cohen-Glashow). Cohen-Glashow was on shaky-ground with me anyway because to me ANY superluminal theory is shaky because we have no experimental evidence.

    OPERA-2 didn’t change my basic opinion: it was wrong, but now one possible reason for it was wrong was eliminated. I was impressed by how quickly they turned around the experimental apparatus to get OPERA-2 done.

    The physics rumor-mill about the loose connector seemed to force CERN to admit (on behalf of OPERA) that there were two possible errors (and would people please shut up while we investigate?), which took a lot of wind out of the speculation sails, and the ICARUS-2 results (doing the same experiment as OPERA-2, using the same neutrino pulses) were impressive in how fast THEY were able to turn things around and get in on the game) deflated things further.

    I came to this site because other science bloggers were saying you had the best description of what went wrong (in detail), and I’m glad I did. I must say I’m impressed with the postmortem analysis OPERA did once they found and corrected the two errors. I look forward to reading their paper once it’s finally released.

  45. I first read about the neutrino story on Facebook of all places, so I didn’t pay much attention until I saw the article pop up again on a real news source. At first I was intrigued but soon figured that it must have been an instrumentation error once I saw how close to the speed of light we were talking about. I really don’t give much credit to mainstream news sources in these situations and didn’t in this case. If there were any substance to this experiment there would soon be confirmation so I just basically waited for more news, but not expecting much. It was to wild of a story to believe, without additional outside confirmation. I felt some excitement that everything we know might be wrong, sort of like the feeling you get when purchasing a lottery ticket knowing full well that you have no realistic chance of winning.

  46. I’ll be honest. I thought the situation was not good for the science community as a whole. Special relativity is a highly tested theory, perhaps one the most tested physical theories in history, so any experiment that runs counter to it should be carefully examined. Also, there is ample other experimental evidence that showed that in the energy regime in question, neutrinos follow relativity.

    I have noticed a few blogs today discussing crackpottery, and although I think that word is overused by “scientists” to dissuade “laymen” from engaging in their own exploration of the world, I also think that events like this cause educated individuals in other fields to question the standards of the science community in general (especially when the results are released officially vice some random posting on a blog).

    Certainly the tolerances that high energy physics work at makes it extremely likely that false observations can be made, especially in less explored energy regimes, however, there is a lot of highly tested physical theories whose validity no longer reside solely within any one community.

  47. Be careful what you ask for, Doctor Strassler! Because it operates in the domain far beyond what humans can relate to either through our senses or our imagination, most of us must simply take what we hear (in dumbed down from) about it completely on faith. The two slit experiment is tangible and mysterious enough that we can get a feel for the conundrums presented by quantum mechanics, and transistors seems to work. But, as an avid follower of science, especially physics, there is what I call a house of cards of accepted knowledge that scientists, desperate for funding or book sales, feed us. Black holes and singularities, predicted by GR, are otherwise a totally preposterous notion. They are very difficult to observe, There are at least a minority of credible physicists who question whether they exist at all. Yet I hear more and more explanations for phenomena being conveniently explained by black holes. They may well exist and I certainly have nothing but skepticism to contribute to the debate (if there even is a debate).

    Likewise, the Big Bang is an extrapolation of very finite data to an absurd yet specific point in spacetime, with zero causal explanation.

    Don’t even get me started on String Theory, M-theory, branes and best sellers. Not Even Wrong and Lee Smolin’s book tell the story.

    Alain Aspect showed (so I’m told) that Entanglement categorically violates the SR luminary speed limit.

    Finally, we now hear that 94% if the cosmological phenomena that we (actually, “you”) observe cannot be explained by “standard” theory.

    So my lay person conclusion is “there’s a lot that we (i.e. “you”) don’t know yet.” So when i heard about the superluminary transAlpino neutrinos I said “hmmm, Cool. Why not? It will be interesting to see what they (you) decide.”

    Sheldon Glashow in one of my heroes, for his plain speaking and sense of humor (“It’s not easy to get the Queen of Sweden drunk, but it can be done.”) He bet the farm on proton decay being observable. It was not observed. He, at least publically, rolled up his sleeves and said “good try, We’ll get ’em next time!”

    As long as you folks bend over backwards to be honest and open as it seems happened in the naughty neutrino incident, I’m a fan and a supporter.

    I DO have a theory on integrating gravity into the Standard Model that I’d love to share with you in a later correspondence , Thanks for the opportunity to vent.

    1. Jim CaJacob,

      if you dislike science beyond what you can see with your eyes and detect with one of your other senses directly or mainstream physics accepted by the experts so much, a partcle physics site as this one is probably the wrong place for you to be.
      Wise decision to not start to troll even worse about cosmology, quantum gravity, string theory, etc here 😉
      You certainly know that for doing just this there exist other places in the internet, I dont have to give you the URL(s) .. 🙂

      I apologize to Prof. Strassler for saying this but such comments drive me up the wall FTL … 🙁

      1. PLEASE, Dilaton. I asked people to speak their minds. I would prefer you not abuse them for doing so.

        Jim – Dilaton is correct that one must be very careful to distinguish between *objects* traveling faster than light or *information* traveling faster than light (both of which would cause problems for relativity) and what happens in quantum mechanics with correlations, which (amazingly) does not, it turns out, violate any of Einstein’s requirements.

        However, Dilaton, the point is *extremely* subtle and I see no reason to abuse others who haven’t understood it. Einstein called it ‘spooky’ for a reason. Your average quantum mechanics student does not understand it; it requires very careful thought. And plenty of good philosophers and even physicists are unhappy with the conventional wisdom of how to think about it.

      2. Ok, agreed …
        (I was so angry that I neglected that you wanted to hear/read what people think; whatever it is :-/)

        I`m now back from the walls down to the floor again 😉

        BTW Happy Easter Holidays to all 🙂

    2. And conerning entanglement, NOTHING travels fastern then light, it`s just about correlations which one easily understands learning correctly a tiny bit about quantum mechanics …

      1. True nothing may travel faster than light and true entanglement is about correlations, but there is nothing easy to understand about how this happens or what its limitations are. Knowing “a tiny bit about quantum mechanics” will not make these matters transparent — not even “knowing a lot” will do that.

  48. Of course it is a setback for physics, especially for the experimentalists in the particle physics world. The fact that they were using the same setup for two years plus and still ended up missing two rather rudimentary errors puts a damper to the confidence of other large experiments, like the LHC. I believe they kept insisting the sigmas were well above 5 and yet errors were found. How confident should we be in LHC at sigmas well below 3?

    In my view, it is very risky to push the envelop of physics with such large and complicated experiments requiring large numbers of active devices in series to repeat precision measurements. I don’t see how you can compensate the accumulated variances of all the devices without using physics as put of the evaluation strategy in the results.

  49. Sorry to disappoint you further, but I’m another layman reader of yours (and of Jennifer’s) who agrees with you. I don’t have a science degree, but I study physics because I enjoy it. In this instance, I see the scientific method and peer review working as it should. It seems the news media and blogosphere were making the biggest noise, while the science professionals were doing what they were supposed to do. Ereditato and Autiero might have been another Penzias and Wilson, but the only way to know was to report their findings and try again.

  50. I have a very high opinion of science in light of how the Opera saga played out. An anomaly was discovered, one that called into question one of the most fundamental aspects of modern physics. This fact was not discarded out of hand. It was not covered up. It was studied. The entire experimental set up was reviewed and analyzed. When the anomaly could not be explained the Opera team published their results. They explained in great detail how they made the measurement and what the results were. They did not attempt justify the results with invented physics. They presented the facts as best they knew them and let the chips fall where they may. When one potential source of error (statistical correlation of source protons to detected neutrinos) was suggested a new experiment was run to determine if that was the explanation. When this revised experiment showed the same anomaly Opera published that as well and asked “what should we try next”?

    Sadly, the ultimate culprit (a bad fibre optic connector) was missed in all the examinations. It happens. When this potentially embarrassing fact was realized Opera did not hide from it. They published the finding in full knowledge how bad it would make them look. [typo corrected by host, hopefully correctly; please reply if not]

    Above all else, science relies on integrity. This is a value that is rapidly disappearing from far too many areas of modern society. The team at Opera displayed that in one corner of our world at least, science, this value has not yet disappeared. For that, I thank them.

  51. Matt, I posted this both on Twitter and on G-Plus today, hoping you might get some commentary from the not-so-usual suspects. I’m as interested as you are in what the answers might be.

    As for the repeated slams on the science reporters — well, as one who works in that field, I think much of the coverage in the science-specific press was perfectly appropriate, tone-wise, and included all the relevant caveats. The broader mainstream news outlets — especially broadcast news — definitely less so. I’ll grant you that. 🙂

    As a fairly science-literate layperson, my own response is largely in keeping with everything else. I have a good idea how science works, what preliminary results mean, plus, well, there’s a physicist in our household so even if I DID start to develop misconceptions, they would be quickly nipped in the bud. 🙂 So I expected from the start that this was probably wrong, although it had some intriguing implications if it was verified. And I thought the OPERA collaboration handled their public comments very well, with well-stated caveats, and I rather enjoyed the glimpse into science as it is actually done. Frankly, I was sorry to hear of the resignations at OPERA; I felt that was too extreme a response to an honest mistake.

    The real question, which I think is the point of the call for input, is whether or not the fracas had any impact whatsoever on the broader general public — people who don’t have in-house physicists, follow science blogs, or subscribe to science magazines. Alas, so far, I don’t think we have an answer to that.

    1. Yes, I noticed that you’d posted it. Thanks for that. I noticed a number of others did too. But indeed the response has been very limited. And I wish I knew better what that means. It may be that I’ve intimidated people out of my comment list. Or that my sophisticated commenters did that. Or that most people are so apathetic that they don’t care to comment.

      As for the resignations; my point of view is that there was a middle ground that the OPERA leaders failed to take (and still seem not to recognize.) That ground was used to announce OPERA’s detective work last week — a quiet little meeting in the Gran Sasso lab, with no fanfare and not open to a wide audience. Talks were made public — it was transparent — but the CERN bigwigs weren’t all sitting there in the audience. If they had done this, it would have sent a strong signal that the result was very preliminary. I think having CERN as a venue sent a different message — and hurt CERN.

      The strategy I am suggesting has precedents (though granted they were before the blog era.) I know of a case where a result that would have been equally astounding was reported quietly at conferences and seminars — and the experimenters embarked on a program to check everything they could think of while working on a more powerful version of their experiment that could confirm their result. After 6 months they finally thought to double check a piece of essential equipment they’d bought from a reputable company that makes precision scientific devices. The company had miscalibrated it.

      1. You’re not the only person who’s mentioned that alternate strategy to me, and I think you’re right: it would have helped clarify the very preliminary nature of the results.

        I am curious in general as to how much things like this do or do not “damage” the image of science/scientists. Those of us who are heavily invested in this world care very deeply about the accurate presentation of details, both technical and otherwise. But as someone who writes for more general audiences, I wonder how much of that really matters to the average reader. Maybe we get a little too worked up/over-anxious about potential impact. Maybe we’re right to be anxious. There’s no hard data, really, to clarify.

      2. Matt, It did not hurt CERN. Unfortunately, sadly actually most people don’t understand what CERN or OPERA is. If anything this incident got the name out there so people might have at least heard of it. Most people hear science funding and think waste of money. They think they have no use for it, what I can use it for? Why should I care?

        They don’t understand your world, reputations or anything else.

      3. Matt,

        What is your idea of a “layperson” and how do you expect or hope they will end up on your website? And why? I think you will get far more insight into us, your readers, if you post this question : “Why are yo reading my blog and what do you expect from it? Also tell me a few words about your (scientific) background.” If you hoped for feedback from a much broader audience in terms of people’s interests and education/science background, maybe you are not bold enough. 🙂 I think Mr. Hawking had his bestseller by being “arrogant”. He didn’t just present what physics currently knows about the nature, about the world, but rather claiming he has a scientific answer to the ultimate questions the people have about universe, nature, God… and throwing his authority and charm behind this. This IMHO (I have to say I am a fan of Mr. Hawking – and I don’t even have to agree with his ideas for this 🙂 And I am a fan of yours, Matt.)

        Regarding Opera, when I’ve heard the news I was excited, but didn’t pay too much attention to the press saying things like “everything we know about physics could be overturned” or “travel back in time”. I thought that if neutrinos do travel faster the light all that will happen will be some adjustments, corrections to our existing theories. Didn’t hold my breath though. Even emotionally I wanted Einstein to be right 🙂

        Regarding how this “saga” was handles by the physicists, it didn’t seem such a drama to me. OPERA have claimed something, and they said from the beginning it needs independent checking. In the end it proved to be wrong. Being outside the particle physicist I don’t understand certain hints (more ore less subtle) until someone like you points them out: For instance, OPERA’s claims had to be checked by others, and that costs time and money, resources that could have been used fore something else if the OPERA people would have been more careful.

  52. /*..It would appear, from the above comments, that almost the only people willing to comment on this topic are those who agree with me to a greater or lesser extent…*/
    I wrote the very same post to the Lubos Motl’s blog, for example. The fact, you cannot find it right there is simply because they it was censored immediately. Motl is supporter of string theory, which is based on Lorentz symmetry – so it’s not surprising, he was dismissive to superluminal neutrinos from first moment. The fact, the superluminal neutrinos could be explained with extradimensions just indicates the principal controversy of string theory: you can confirm one postulate of it just with violation of another one. At any case, Lubos just decided to support his conservative view, so you cannot find any opposite stance at his blog. Now it seems, Motl was just right, so I’m really interested, if my intuition will fail or not.

  53. It’s a consequence of financial pressure, in which the contemporary physics is facing. You can get grants easier, if you promote your research in sensationalist mass-media. At the moment when average scientist is spending 40% of his time with collecting of grants such opportunism indeed makes a difference. The premature release of important findings is symptomatic for the whole contemporary science though. In this connection the cold fusion and superluminal neutrino findings have lotta things in common: they were both accepted with surprise, later ridiculed with premature counter-experiments and subsequently ignored. IMO this similarity is not accidental and I do even believe, both these findings will be vindicated in near future in similar way. The temporal negativism and politically motivated dismissal is an analogy of dark matter or surface tension and it manifests itself during all significant phase transforms.

  54. Ok, time for me to make a comment of my own.

    This has been fascinating, in a way. It strongly brings to mind my fellow (albeit much younger) Simon’s Rock College alum Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble: http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ .

    It would appear, from the above comments, that almost the only people willing to comment on this topic are those who agree with me to a greater or lesser extent. Which might also mean that the only people reading this blog are those who agree with me. That is quite disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising in this deeply fragmented era.

    Moreover, many of you who replied — non-scientists though you may be — are among the more scientifically educated of the public. Where’s everybody else today? Have you and I scared them off?

    Part of the purpose of today’s effort was to reach out to learn why people who feel very differently — and there must be an enormous number of them out there — feel the way they do. This basically hasn’t happened.

    Problems cannot be solved and addressed if exchanges of views do not take place. This website is not yet able to catalyze that exchange. What’s to be done?

    1. Matt:”It would appear, from the above comments, that almost the only people willing to comment on this topic are those who agree with me to a greater or lesser extent. Which might also mean that the only people reading this blog are those who agree with me. That is quite disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising in this deeply fragmented era.”

      I am not quite sure what you are after. You yourself are a product of the internet?:) Thoughts on the Filter Bubble – http://www.eskesthai.com/2012/04/thoughts-on-filter-bubble.html

      While I cannot be specific as to why there are not more responses from those regarding your article here, the chart “upworthy- http://www.upworthy.com/could-this-be-the-most-upworthy-site-in-the-history-of-the-internet ” has established and demonstrates as you can see that maybe your article is 0.1% of interest to some people?

      So your response while focused here on this question of yours holds thoughts about the “deeply fragmented era.” It is an informational world and quite vast. Scientists operate as only 3% of the population so while specific to the population only a portion of that population as a small amount might be interested as well?


  55. Mostly, I am terribly disappointed at the current state of science journalism and how it repeatedly fails to present scientific issues from a balanced perspective.

  56. As one who have read among others Cohen-Glashow, where objection – at least one of them was raised, I do not think the final result, if it indeed is a final one is disappointing. Science should work like that and if corrections are needed, that is fine with me. It certainly does not take anything from the Opera team. There appears to be quite an extensive work done on neutrino in US and other countries, namely Japan and China, and over time we will learn more about this elusive particle.

  57. From my perspective it was science done (mostly) right. The initial leak was bad, and forced a premature press release about what was going on a few days later. That pretty much said “This is weird, and we don’t know what’s wrong yet, but it’s almost certainly wrong.” The popular media turned the whole thing into “OMG!!!!!111one!! Einstein was WRONG!!!!!!”
    Then the researchers found what was wrong. The expected result was correct.

    The issue is that I had to tell a good number of my friends what was actually said in the OPERA press release/paper. None of them read it, even though it’s quite easy to read. They trusted the media (a grievous error) to provide accurate science reporting.

    In short, the following comic sums up the problem very well:

  58. I think the FTL neutrinos issue has in general worsened the science reputation, all the general newspapers wrote with big letters that Einstein could be wrong, time travel could possible and things like that, some months later a new article says that the experiment was wrong because a faulty connector, these are the only informations a standard person has read.

    On the other hand for are a layperson interested in physics and other science fields this has been an opportunity to know and to follow specialized blogs, to learn more about scientific method and transparency.

    We have to ask the media to be cautious when informing about science, it could be a big temptation to cut investments in this “public debt problem” times, but science is, in my opinion, the main tool we have to exit from this crisis, every new discovery has a real life application and a big return of our taxes, keep working Matt!

  59. /* If I may point out, you were asked your opinion of the OPERA saga, not about your own personal theory of high-energy physics */
    My private opinion is based on certain paradigm, so I cannot avoid it. AWT is not just a theory of high energy physics, it’s has its wider social and biological connections, because the society can be considered as a hyperdimensional particle system too.

    For example, the people who are opened to alternatives of mainstream physics like you tend to refer about its alleged violations slightly BEFORE the official channels mainstream media. Did you ever realize, your blog (which I do appreciate just from the above reason) is sorta analogy of superluminal neutrinos in causal space-time? It brings the informations faster, than the established deterministic ways of information spreading.

  60. I had my doubts from the moment the story was published. On one hand neutrinos are difficult to detect as is, on the other hand there are plenty of neutrino experiments going on, none of which had previously reported FTL neutrinos. When I encounter flashy media science reports like this one I always turn to sites like this to find out more.

  61. I confess I know quite a bit of “science”. So maybe I am supposed not to comment.. But don’t we all know quite a bit of science? … Say relative to, hmmm, Newton?
    I wonder if the expression “layperson” does not hint that scientists are some sort of priests? I also wonder what defines a “scientist”? A scientific degree? But what is really so special in common between a paleontologist and a mathematician? OK, mathematicians maybe do not qualify as scientists? But then a lot of theoretical physics, on the edge, is little else…
    Something else: a lot of, say, cosmology, is in full view of “laypersons”, but a lot of the certainty there seems to have an OPERAtic component: bold assertions, not all the details in for sure (I am alluding, say, to cosmic inflation).
    One thing scientists ought to remember is that scientific research is one thing, science itself, that is, certain knowledge that is indeed certain, is something else. It would be good to teach that to the public too, as it would help it learn to search for truth, and not to confuse inquiry with certainty.

  62. Total overreaction. Sometimes college professors and academics get way too egotistical and judgmental over their reputations. The scientists said when making their press release that they were not making a claim of a discovery but were reaching out to the scientific community for help resolving an anomaly they could not explain. They did not rule out the possibility of error in the experiment, they just could not find it. It was this attention from the community that helping eventually resolved the issue. Why this is an embarrassment and is worthy of firing people is beyond me. To me it was appropriate scientific thoroughness.

  63. AWT, aka dense aether theory models the space-time with water surface, it’s essentially low-dimensional analogy of quantum foam. All particles are considered a solitons of vacuum waves. The photons are solitons of transverse waves and they do correspond the Russel’s solitons, which are always move slower, than the transverse waves (which do correspond the waves of light in this model). And the neutrinos correspond the Falaco solitons of longitudinal waves, which correspond the gravitational waves in this model. These solitons are usually moving with slightly higher speed, than the surface waves, which implies the neutrinos should move superluminal speed, until their energy is not lower than the energy of CMBR photons, or higher, than the energy of electron-positron pairs.

    In dense aether model the superluminal speed of neutrinos is related to the brief moment, in which neutrinos are switching their leptonic charge, thus changing into gravitational waves. Such a neutrino is sterile in this moment and it makes a brief jumps across the space-time. So that the superluminal neutrinos don’t violate the special relativity in strict sense, because we cannot see them during it.

  64. I was simply excited from the initial announcement to hear that that there was a possibility that everything we knew had the potential to be turned around on its head. It was exciting to read about the scientists swarming like bees around something that probably rocked their routine day like a 9.4 magnitude quake. I knew that eventually the truth, whatever it turned out to be, would emerge. After all, getting to the truth is the scientific process.

    On a side note….I just love “Of Paticular Significance”. I wish I had as much time to read it as you do writing it, because the information is always readable, interesting, and most importantly understandable. Great job !

  65. I found following the OPERA story on this blog fascinating. The as-it-is-happening perspective was very exciting. Thank you so much. I took away from this story (and from the on-going LHC story) a much better appreciation of how careful and artful experimenters at this level need to be. One thing puzzled me a little. I was thinking about the kind of system you would want in place to catch the cable and clock problems that have been implicated. Is it unusual in this kind of experiment to have someone tasked to do routine checks of all the hardware that can be checked and do calibration checks? I am very surprised that a misconnected cable went unchecked for months and months. I would want someone responsible for thoroughly checking my equipment every week. Maybe that should be his only job. Is this too expensive or time-demanding? Surely you want some system in place to make sure your equipment keeps working right.

  66. This is not about OPERA’s saga. This is a saga of the entire physics community, about the physics epistemology. How much we truly know about the Nature physics? What is the criterion to accept a challenge to a known physics fact? Is there a physics fact which is viewed unchallengeable by any test data?

  67. The difference was so small and stable that no explanation other than hardware/software bug come to my mind.

  68. I’m not sure whether I’m the type of guy you had in mind… I don’t find the idea of using my spare time to work through a book on special relativity or differential geometry boring. In fact, quite the opposite.

    Which is why, in my limited estimation, there was almost surely a mistake in OPERA’s methods.

    What I did not like, however, was the sensationalizing by the mass media and/or their lack of understanding the issues involved. We all know “news” agencies today generally sensationalize everything – that is how you sell news. I find it especially annoying when it is something near to my heart, like physics.

    As for OPERA, I thought they handled the situation as befits their profession. At no point was the scientific method eschewed or forgotten. Whether they could have settled the issue internally before releasing results, I do not know. Mistakes happen, it’s how you deal with them afterword that matters.

  69. Well, non-scientist? I have a degree in BS in BioChemistry and a MSEE. So I have a science back ground. To the issue. For me, it would have been extremely hard to believe that the neutrinos were faster than c. To me the issue is tone. I am so very pleased that science is becoming more accessible to those of use outside the fields. I love following the blogs of multiple scientists in multiple fields. I encourage this sharing of ideas and explanation of results. This accessiblity is truly a gift of our times. Yet, I would have expected the Opera people to turn over every stone to understand their result – as they ultimately did. They should have been extremely resistent to publishing this result given the strong suspicion it was bogus. If it leaked they should have said that they are working hard to find the error that they are very confident is buried somewhere in their experiment.

    Yet, I am at complete loss to understand the tone they took in publizing their data. Reminds me of cold fusion. This behavior clearly damaged careers – that is deserving, but damaged the public view of science, the compentency of big, high profile work. Big science is in a vulnerable position between the perceived need for “hype”, the ever present pursuit of glory and the truly hard work and difficulty of high quality science presented with high integrity. If big science does not produce big results – why fund it, if produces bogus results – why trust it. Generally science works this way because there are so many checks and balances. What happened at Opera?

  70. It really did not impact my perception of science one way or another. I think the scientific process worked perfectly. What really made me crazy was how some of the internet/media responded. Some were presenting it as if it was at first a great discovery and then a great blunder. It was neither; it was an experiment, the analysis, and a result.

    The worst possible consequence from all this would be that science slips back into the shadows, afraid to say too much too soon becoming less accessible to the general public. We (the general public) need to better understand the process, we need to be more discerning of our sources, we need tons of curiosity tempered with a bit of patience.

  71. When I read it, including the accolades I though it was preposterous to publish it at the time. I understand the pressure and that the leaked information would take a life of it’s own however the saner folks at OPERA should have simply said: “yes we are seeing an anomaly it is however too soon to make any predictions, please stay tuned”. That would have lowered (I think/hope) the pressure to publish something.

    What bothered me about this episode is that the science fiction writers, oh wait I meant “scientists”, started to write all kinds of obvious nonsense. The public is inundated with the Brian Greene’s et al and this saga did not help.

    The tragedy is that for years I read all kinds of nonsense until I found reliable blogs such as these. I know that there are many more people like me with a casual interest in science and like to follow it. Having all that cruft out there plainly sucks.

    From a soap opera perspective it was pretty neat.

  72. Hi Matt

    To my mind the key to understand this issue is not to become entangled in nano and femtoseconds. Our room´s temperature, the atmospheric temperature and the speed of light are averages but not specifics data. Our room’s temperature relates to the outer temperature, the thickness of the walls, if the stove is on or off, etc. At the end we get an average or approximate rate obtained from different variables.

    James Clerk Maxwell wrote down in 1861 that in his opinion the speed of light was 192.500 miles per second. He took into account the Fizau´s measurement, 195.777 miles per second, and the measure made by Galbraith and Haugthon, 193.118 miles per second. None of them were right but in 1862 L. Foucault got 298.000 kilometres per second (one mile is 1,60934 km). A. Michelson, when he was 73 years old, got very close to the standard speed of light, 299.796 kilometres per second, just a deviation of 4 km/sec. So, we do have a margin of error, an average or approximate rate that put us in the right measurement. In this perspective, to base this issue in nano or femtoseconds seems to me quite ambiguous.

    You say that the “typical” energy of an OPERA neutrino is 10 GeV. But the point is that even with energies of 5 GeV ICARUS [ArXiv 17 October 2011] measured neutrinos averaging 26 GeV at the end of the flight.

  73. Physicists are human after all! That surprised me. More so, that Mother Nature apparently consulted with Pythagoras before creating this incredible universe.
    The press doesn’t deserve a response.

  74. I rely for most of my science reporting on sites like Research Blogging. And the reporting on this issue again made me realise why. It seems there are only a handful of real science writers employed by the ‘old media’ left in the world; almost all newspapers and tv stations seem to rely heavily on unqualified writers rehashing Reuters press releases (“churnalism”).
    Hardly any traditional media outlet took the time to understand (let alone explain) the problems with the initial results. While science bloggers all seemed to converge on the viewpoint that this anomalous result would most likely go away, newspapers were all abuzz with sensationalist headlines and wild speculation on time travel. None of the newspapers I read even mentioned the contradiction with earlier data from supernovas.

    Mainstream science reporting is usually way off, we should have eradicated all types of cancers ten times over by now if what you read in the papers is true. Journalists don’t understand science and shrinking budgets have all but eliminated qualified science editors. The science section now seems to be filled by an intern that happens to have a few minutes spare, with no time or even the ability to read up on and comprehend the actual scientific article or issue they are reporting on.

    To be fair though, we also have to mention the idiots at PR departments at universities who release badly written, sensationalist (and therefore probably wrong) press releases. Which often get picked up with no thought whatsoever by lazy news outlets.

    Science in action (such as the Higgs search or neutrino speed issue) is fascinating to watch. It’s unfortunate that today’s reality is that to get dependable news and insight you have yo go out and hunt for it yourself.

    Bloggers: 1, old media: 0. And that’s unlikely to change any time soon unless journalism colleges radically alter their program so that actually learning to read scientific papers becomes part of the curriculum.

  75. I’ve learned that science is more subject to some of the unintentional biases inherent to different types of news media than other topics.
    All stories morph as they move from source to reporter to different levels of editor. But because science requires some translation from one person to the next in the reporting chain and is somewhat more nuanced than other topics, reporting on it can end up seeming like a large version of the “whisper game” by the time a story goes to print.
    Anyway, I came away with some questions about how this will impact the interaction between scientists and the media/public over the long term. Would the Opera folks still have resigned if this story hadn’t blown up in the media the way it did? Will this episode cause other scientists to be so cautious of how and when they present experimental results that it actually hinders the scientific process? Have the media and the way we share information evolved past what scientists are prepared to deal with?

  76. Matt, to be honest the main thing that I learned from this whole story is that I’m getting my physics news from the right place. I have been a working scientist in the past and I’ve been an avid reader of popular science for many years, but those sources did not cover OPERA in as much detail or as accurately as this blog.
    I especially appreciated insights from yourself and some of your commenters on just how technical these measurements are. The mainstream is all too eager to engage in schadenfreude at the expense of perceived intellectual elite.

  77. I think in general we live in a time when the wisdom of experts is suspect: http://thebaffler.com/notebook/2012/03/too_smart_to_fail

    That said, I’d trust a physicist over an economist any day of the week. Part of the scientific method is the understanding that science does not deliver absolutes, but testable hypotheses. So from that perspective, the testing and rejection of a sensational claim should in fact restore confidence in the scientific community.

    And in the meantime, we got some good neutrino jokes…

  78. Yep, layman here. First instinct was: it must be wrong. I knew that these experiments are extremely sensitive and complex.
    Second; if it were at all possible to go ftl, we must have seen it around us a long time ago; we didn’t.
    Thirdly, not only would the neutrinos have broken the speed barrier, but the “time barrier” as well.

    Just wish the press would have given more publicity to the way the scientists at OPERA handled the matter. I think they did it very responibly.


  79. Continuing on LHC, the BBC report I have not seen. But LHC site is very slow in updating the activities to the lay person. Prof Nielson, hope I have spelt the name correctly, was of the opinion that LHC need not spend so much here in India on his visit couple of days back. Any comments prof?

  80. After he initial euphoria, it warranted verification rightly stated by OPERA. But media needed news, as if it was covering a papal journey to a state. But neutrinos does not have any religion. I feel it is very important that one should be unbiased when you report about anything in the mediai. Upon the experiments and the scientists, they did called for verification of their findings in the initial report itself.

  81. The two propositions you listed are not the only possibilities.
    It amazed me how everyone seemed to jump to the conclusion that if OPERA was right, Einstein must have been wrong. But that is not so.
    We bias our thinking by always referring to c as the speed of light. But that, according to Einstein, is not its primary function. It is the maximum speed of information propagation in free space. Photons, being massless, naturally travel at that speed in free space. With some modifications we can explain how that fits with the speed of photons through matter, even within atoms in the large space between electrons and nuclei.
    However, neutrinos are different. They only interact weakly and so can travel right through nuclei and rarely interact. What is not known is the maximum speed of information propagation inside nuclear matter (let’s call it cN). That is extremely difficult to measure except by sending neutrinos through huge amounts of matter. Passing through the rock between CERN and OPERA might have begun to show a small effect if the value of cN is much greater than c. I estimated the size of such an effect if cN were infinite and unfortunately it would be less than that measured by OPERA. But that does not mean cN = c. It would still be worth repeating the experiment with neutrino beams going right through the Earth.
    If cN is much greater than c it could remove the need to invent inflation as a solution to the horizon problem in the big bang. It would also alter our understanding of how neutron stars and black holes work.
    It also amazed me how many people referred to the detection of 20 or so neutrinos from SN1987a as proof that neutrinos travel at the same speed as photons, completely ignoring any possibility of difference between travel through rock rather than empty space.

    1. Re “completely ignoring any possibility of difference between travel through rock rather than empty space”

      The neutrinos from SN 1987A set off from the core of the progenitor star, and had to travel through almost the whole of the matter of the star, which outmasses and outdenses (if that’s a word) the Alps by a few orders of magnitude. Not to mention that “empty space” is not really empty, and over 168,000 light years there will be a fair number of atoms.

      1. Yes, and the neutrinos arrived before the photons. I believe that is consistent with current SN models but (a) are the models accurate enough for the time difference to refute my conjecture and (b) was it possible to measure the time difference accurately enough for that?
        But for the purposes of this page my point is that people seemed to fall in too readily with the alternatives offered (Opera versus Einstein) without even considering that there might be other possibilities consistent with all known facts. Blind acceptance cannot be good for the progress of science.

      2. @Graham Relf on Apr 7, Yes, the models are accurate enough and the time difference could have been measured accurately enough. Consider that if the neutrinos were ahead by 60 nanosec after 731 km, they would be ahead by 779 sec after 1 light-year. So over 168000 ly, they would have arrived about 4 years ahead of the light, which is, I am sure you will grant, within the realm of measurement of even the crudest clocks.

  82. I am always very doubtful about what media report , i am also very opposing to the attitude of some scientists where prejudice and arrogance is over and above facts , observations extended far beyond what they are, to reach what the observer believe ….to confirm his pre-conception of some speculation , as for the a/m case science was honest , true , respectful and struggling to reach the scientific goal , that is to try to know cosmic facts and to demolish dogmas and fact free fantasies .

  83. To my mind the FTL neutrinos is still an open question. As far as the neutrino is a massive particle it can not be as fast as the photon, but it is. Why?

    Once a particle that is not the photon reaches the speed of light, a door opens up. After neutrinos will come over other particles or even molecules. I think that the speed of light is a provisional constant whether the photonic domain seems to be a universal and uncharted fact.

    I think that is important to carry on this investigation that promises to be fertile.

    1. I’ll answer to this one since it contains a physics misconception. Neutrinos, since they are massive, travel below the speed of light, according to Einstein. However, a neutrino of mass 0.1 eV/c-squared (we don’t know neutrino masses yet, but they are smaller than 1 eV/c-squared) and with energy of 10 GeV (the typical energy of an OPERA neutrino) would have a speed of 99.999999995% of the speed of light. That is too close to the speed of light for OPERA or ICARUS or any other existing experiment to detect the difference between the neutrino speed and light speed. OPERA can detect early or late time arrival of a few nanoseconds, but if you could send both a photon and a 10 GeV neutrino from CERN to OPERA, they would arrive (according to Einstein) a few femtoseconds apart — and a femtosecond is one millionth of a nanosecond.

      So when people say “neutrinos travel at the speed of light”, they are speaking loosely — and I make this error too sometimes, I’ve noticed. The correct statement is that “neutrinos from the CERN beam to OPERA and ICARUS travel just below, and unmeasurably close to, the speed of light”.

      So there is no puzzle.

  84. First, big excitement about Einstein, and people since him, might being wrong, with new workings of nature out there to be discovered by someone’s new insight.

    Second, difficulties in accepting growing evidence that there was something wrong with the result, with a mixed feeling of sympathy towards OPERA’s researchers and of rage against some cynicism and arrogance implicit in theoreticians arguments.

    Finally, acceptance and disappointment towards the recognition that such great emotions were derived from a mistake. Recognizing the good workings and final success of the overall scientific process is a big enough consolation though.

    (Doubts remain on the roles of OPERA’s leaders profound motivations and CERN’s name in the middle of this story.)

  85. To quote XKCD: “When there’s a news story about a study overturning all of physics, I used to urge caution, remind people that experts aren’t all stupid, and end up in pointless arguments about Galileo. So I gave up, and now I just find excited believers and bet them $200 each that the new result won’t pan out. It provides a good income and if I’m ever wrong I’ll be too excited about the new physics to notice the loss.”

  86. Read about it on io9, not the mainstream media. They presented it first as being probably a mistake, which is what the OPERA scientists said from the beginning, if I’m not mistaken. Then io9 speculated on the possibilities of FTL and time travel, which was appropriate for a science fiction blog. So I saw this more as a reinforcement of the scientific method than anything else. I hope scientists aren’t pressured into hiding inconvenient data that they can’t immediately explain.

  87. I’m old enough and jaded enough to expect that the media will try to cast everything in the most sensational way they can, even when they understand it.

    The scientists were behaving well. They always said, “This result is odd and unexpected and we can’t figure out why it happened”, at least until they did figure out why it happened. Comparing the OPERA mistake with the cold fusion mess is quite educational: both had a lot of media excitement, but the OPERA researchers stuck to science.

  88. What surprised me most? Well, that there was such an elegant way to resolve everything (via cosmic ray timing).

    Journalism: I’m a bit disappointed about how mass media handled everything. Making a big story about neutrinos violating well-accepted theories (Einstein’s) and not mentioning how cautious scientists really were.

    The whole story didn’t change my (rather positive) view about science and scientists. Being a software developer I find other developers or myself overlooking simple solutions to seemingly complicated problems from time to time, I guess it’s no different with scientists.

    So in the end I’m pleased as this made a good detective story.

  89. For me was really interesting, I learned a lot thanks to this blog, and it seems that if the newspapers treat everything like they do with science, it’s better not to read them at all. Thank god we have internet.
    Another thing that I liked was the honesty of the scientists that made the experiments, this “hey , this is what we get and it doesn’t make any sense, please help” attitude is in my opinion very positive for science. I’m pretty sure this will help in the future experiments.
    thanks a lot for this blog Professor!

  90. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for providing this opportunity.

    The whole exercise was revealing of the process unfolding “in the pursuit of science.” There were questions about things going “faster than” and how this would run contrary to established science. So, this brought out some comments that were in my view somewhat distasteful to those who entertain FTL, what amounts too, while the drive and need was to answer logically and coherently?

    That is noting new to the established science procedures and the understanding of the laws being challenged on a “human level” while conduct becoming was to explain the process from all corners? Go over the experiment. Looks for the flaws.

    So to me science sources did speak, which was important. Not just from your end. Not just relying on the journalism of the day. Your impute and other science sources were much appreciated.

    But ultimately…….it was about science- http://eskesthai.blogspot.ca/2012/02/matt-strassler-tom-levenson-virtually.html.


  91. I was skeptical of the original announcement. As an engineer I know very little about GR, but I know enough to know that FTL neutrino had real world implications. Plus, the media (I follow) positioned the Opera release more as “Um, we can’t figure out what we did wrong, so we’re putting this out there” as opposed to, “Hey, we’re the first to make this great discovery”

    So the outcome – a problem with the measurement instrument was more of “hey, that happens” than “those idiots”

    1. I think this is an important point — at least some media outlets did present the news with roughly the right level of doubt.

  92. It was very exciting indeed, but the announcement of the mistakes was anti-climactic. Still, I think we need more experiments like this one to finally settle the issue. I do not agree with folks like Lubosh Motl who keep insulting the physicists at OPERA because of their actions. We need to have understanding and respect for them and realize that theirs is a difficult task.

  93. The best thing was that I found this place. 😉

    1. I thought it was fascinating that even the OPERA people didn’t really believe what they had found and as much as anything were asking for help in explaining what their tests results showed.

    2. The “popular” media is awful at reporting stuff like this…and they really don’t have to be.

    3. Science (the scientific method) works.

    4. I was mildly surprised that the results weren’t immediately rejected out of hand and that OPERA seemed to be taken seriously. At least taken seriously enough where lots of resources were marshaled to prove them wrong.

    5. On one hand I was disappointed that the results have turned out to be wrong (new physics would have been cool!), but on the other it was a really great experience to be somewhat closer to the action (by being here) than I would have been just following along in the popular press.

    Thanks for taking the time to explain this stuff.


  94. It didn’t really change my opinion of the physicists at all, or anything like that. What it did do, however, was make me interested again in particle physics. This was mostly because it led to me finding your blog though in the quest for finding things out.

    It was interesting whilst it was uncertain, especially with those theoretical arguments against it you posted. So I thought it was all quite exciting. There are no negative sides of it for me, although I have noticed some people being almost angry towards them for it though, which seems odd to me.

  95. Initially excitement that it might be something really new. Then caution after hearing scepticism from many respected scientists. Then understanding that it was the way science works in practice. I wasn’t suspicious of science in the first place, but it was good to see the robust debate and desire to check and test the results.

  96. At the time of the announcement, I was at work, following a “live blogging” of the announcement by one physicist and chatting via Live Journal comments with a friend who was at that moment watching the announcement at a T2K meeting in Japan.

    I don’t think it changed my perception of science and scientists at all. But I don’t think I’m a representative layperson.

  97. I learned much more from the mistake than would have if it had all gone right.

    I also see the Opera scientists more as people now, less as some “boffins.”

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