Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Neutrinos: Physics Embarrassment or Great Public Outreach

On September 22nd the OPERA collaboration announced that neutrinos arrived at their detectors 60 nanosecond early. In about that amount of time, the physics world was all in a tizzy with comparisons to cold fusion fiasco of 1989, saying it had to be wrong and arguing over whether or not we should even be publicizing the published results. Well today a "sources familiar with the experiment" says the result can be blamed on faulty wiring.

Most physicitsts were pretty sure this would happen. It is so unlikely that anything can travel faster than the speed of light that there had to be some sort of error on the experimenter's part or some misinterpretation of the data. Well, it turns out that most likely it was a loose connection between a GPS and computer card that made it appear as if the neutrinos were breaking the speed limit. Seeing as the "source familiar with the experiment" is the only one quoted, I'm gonna wait to pass judgement till I hear from someone that uses their name. But it is pretty likely that this caused the result.

There are countless blogs discussing the science, but seeing as my job is to try and get people interested in physics, I'm looking at it all from a public outreach perspective. And, well, I don't have any answers and I'm wondering what you as interested readers might think. We have two different camps around here. The first group is really excited to have something controversial and new to excite and engage the public. This was a fantastic opportunity to show the public how science can work even if the surprising result is shown to be false. Then there are those that think the original story should have been kept out of the media until we were all sure it was true and now that there is a possible culprit, they think the whole event was a waste of everyone's time.

I want to know what you all think. Was this a good public outreach opportunity or are you annoyed we got you all worked up over a loose wire? Are you more excited about physics because of this or do you think physicists are not as smart as you used to think they were? Should we have advertised it more or less knowing it would probably end in a loose wire or dead battery?

I, for one, am still hoping they were wrong about the loose wire. But then again, I think physics is way more fun when there is a lot to argue about.


  1. I teach science (biology and chemistry) and I'm always trying to get students to ask questions. We were actually looking at light (wavelengths, etc) when the first story broke. I took a day and challenged them to discuss whether the results were actually possible or not.

    I'm really glad they released the first result. While science "knows" a lot, there are still little mysteries out there that pop up from time to time. It's a chance for students to get excited about science in their future, seeing that not everything can be explained.

  2. When asked to comment about the recent finding that last Fall's apparent "faster-than-light" neutrino result was in fact due to an instrumental error, OPERA collaboration spokeswoman Emily Litella said only, "Never Mind."

  3. in that case you´d be sure the cesium clock performs for the job if it does at all.

  4. Considering the pedestals that such august researchers are sometimes placed, it's great that such details as this come to light. I agree with Brian E. Bennett. This is a great teaching example. It's also a classic example of, "All exposure is good; good exposure is better." This got people talking (and arguing!) about this affair. People all of a sudden said, "Wait. Science is exciting? Well, allllll-righty then!" While many might have no clue as to what a "neutrino" is, they can understand the basics of this problem. If it was an error, then it had to be one of two things: the distance between the source and detector was wrong or the timing was wrong. Okay, so it might also have been a combination of these two things. Frankly, I've found that racing fans get the concept faster than most. They understand distance = velocity * time. And that's what this problem boils down to. And if it's not an error in timing nor an error in distance, then you physics-types have a LOT of work to do!
    If it does turn out to be an error, so what? That's science in action. Science goes through this self-correcting process all of the time. Most of the time it doesn't get such international press. When it does (as it did this time), milk it for all its worth. Anything that will improve the science literacy of our citizens is something I'm all for.