Science is Not Built for Speed

26 Sep 2011

Eric Randall, for The Atlantic:

Physicists spent their weekends walking back media hype over an experiment that at first glance seems to disprove Einstein’s famed theory of relativity.

But behind this defiant preaching of scientific processes and shorts-eating, there perhaps lies another motive for wishing away the results: throwing out relativity would mean a whole lot of work for scientists who would literally and figuratively need to re-write the book on modern physics.

No. A thousand times, no.

Responsible scientists understand what the term “theory” means and are well aware that some of the most strongly held notions of how the universe work may not be correct. The reason that the scientific community is demanding caution has little to do with personal pride and everything to do with the manner by which scientific theory is created.

One study, one experiment, one result does not a theory make (or break, for that matter). Testing must be rigorous. It must repeated ad nauseam and then it must be repeated again, long passed the next news cycle. Science moves slowly. It does not come out as a press release before the paper and its results are objectively examined.

So no, Eric, lots of physicists are not nervous about the speed of light, because CERN’s neutrinos are but a single data point. Bring a thousand and perhaps scientists will start to get worried.


For a good, skeptical look on whether the speed of light has been broken, check out Phil Plait’s post yesterday on Discover Magazine’s Bad Astronomy blog.