Last week a team of scientists working at CERN, the European scientific research organization, published a research paper that has rocked the scientific community. According to their data, gathered as part of a research projected named “OPERA,” neutrinos generated at the CERN research facility located on the Swiss-French border were found to travel faster than the speed of light.
Not a lot faster, mind you. The data shows that the particles made the 454 mile trip from the CERN facility to the INFN (Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare) Gran Sasso Laboratory in central Italy 61 billionths of a second faster than light in vacuum. That’s all of two thousandths of a percent difference, but in the weird world of sub-atomic physics, it’s quite a remarkable result.
Einsteinen physics set the universal speed limit at the speed of light over one hundred years ago. It quickly became one of the bedrocks of modern physics, a universally accepted fact as seemingly unshakable as the Newtonian relationship between gravity and mass. Anything that challenges that tenet will necessarily make physicists take another look at relativity theory.
The scientific method demands that the results must be independently verified, so it will likely be a while before we can definitively confirm or deny the finding. Still, the CERN scientists took many months to carefully check and recheck their data before publishing a result that was sure to upset the apple carts of so many physicists.
“After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement. While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation,” said Antonio Ereditato, spokesman for OPERA and a professor a the University of Bern.
Could this finding have unexpected consequences in other fields, most notably in the field of climatology? Advocates of the theory that burning fossil fuels is causing catastrophic global warming have long claimed that there is consensus among scientists about that relationship. Many scientists would challenge that claim, including this one, for the complexity of climate science and the multitude of intertwined forces that affect the climate requires measured, necessarily nuanced, explanations of the role that greenhouse gases play in the system. Instead, many global warming proponents like to deal in absolutes and they thus pretend that the effect of greenhouse gases on the climate far outweighs all others. This is effectively the “consensus” they claim exists in the scientific community.
Consensus and the scientific method are, in fact, incompatible concepts. If consensus ruled science, the sun would still be circling the earth and phlogiston would still cause fires to burn, rather than the oxidation of hydrocarbons. It’s hard to imagine any concept that has been more accepted as absolute truth in modern times than the limiter of the speed of light. So many other parts of Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity have been experimentally proven, often using tests that Einstein himself suggested could be tried when technological progress made them practical. There wasn’t any reason for scientists to even suspect that the speed of light might not be absolute.
But, a good scientist never says “never” and when the surprising results came through, the scientists at CERN checked, re-checked and checked some more. Eventually, they decided they could not disprove what their own eyes were telling them, and the results have startled physicists around the world into rethinking the way things work.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if left-wing politicians, the environmental left and the mainstream media took a minute to reflect that if something so set in stone as the absoluteness of the speed of light might be overturned, perhaps these claims that the “science is settled” when it comes to global warming are a bit misplaced? Wouldn’t it be nice if all of those people put some effort into understanding the scientific research that tends to refute the alarmists – and there’s plenty of it out there – rather than turning the issue into a show of hands?
Just recently, for example, another CERN study showed that cosmic rays play a more important role in cloud formation than previously thought. Does that mean that the over-blown role of greenhouse gases in the climate system has been disproven once and for all? No. But it does demonstrate, once again, how poorly we actually understand the complex interactions that go into determining planetary climate trends and how we must always keep our minds open to learn more. For, as CERN’s latest research shows, good science is not static – it is never “settled.” Science done right always keeps an open mind and it is only with an open-mind that science can lead the way to new and even more amazing discoveries.