The theorists are now knotted up with conflicting emotions. As much as they support Einstein, they’d also love for the new finding to be true. It’d be weirdly thrilling. They’d get to rethink everything. If neutrinos violate the officially posted cosmic speed limit, the result will be the Full Employment Act for Physicists.
“Besides my wedding day and the birth of my kids, it would be the happiest day of my life,” says Brian Greene, the author of “The Fabric of the Cosmos” and a theoretical physicist at Columbia University. “That’s what we live for.”
The European experiment, named OPERA (which somehow comes from Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus), found that neutrinos traveled from a lab near Geneva to a detector in Gran Sasso, Italy, 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light.
The scientists have now tweaked their experiment using more discrete pulses of particles and are expected to submit new findings this month. They could well wind up reaffirming their original, shocking conclusion.
Lawrence Krauss, a best-selling author (“The Physics of Star Trek”) and professor at Arizona State University, believes the OPERA team made a public relations blunder by announcing its intial finding before it had been verified by outside experimenters. Krauss thinks this could wind up embarrassing the profession. But if it holds up, he said, the implications will be astounding.
“It’s not as if science is just a series of facts that are separate. Relativity is the basis of all of modern physics, all of particle physics, and astronomy,” Krauss said.
When a reporter suggested to Krauss that the neutrino report is like someone declaring that motherhood is bad, he said, “Actually, it’s like saying motherhood doesn’t exist.”
A crucial part of space-time
Lurking within the neutrino story is a grander question: How close are we to knowing everything about space, time, matter, energy, the origin of the universe? Are we still scratching the surface? Or are we starting to get vanishing returns as we use expensive gadgets to probe the margins of nature?
This debate goes back to the 1890s, when some physicists feared there was nothing left to do but tweak the established truths to the sixth decimal. A few years later, Einstein showed up, and next came the wonders of the atom and the development of the spooky theories of quantum mechanics. So the smart money is always on surprises.
But scientists also tend to be conservative. There’s an institutional preference for simple explanations consistent with previous experiment and theory. The simple explanation for the neutrino shocker is that the scientists made an error somewhere.