By Nick Scroxton

Tracks from a Neutrino Event
Photo from the Conrad Research Group

Forward, right, together, forward, left, together, forward, right, together…..

Like a classical waltz the progress of science moves forwards, backwards, sideways, and spins, all at the same time. Its only after a few years that you can stand back and see if any real progress in any direction has been made. And whether this is in the direction you expected.

This is in contrast to how the media portray the progress of science, linearly, event after event, and I suspect this is probably how most members of the public similarly view progress. But science is just as much about the experiments that haven’t worked as the ones that have. The backwards steps that tell us what isn’t going on are just as crucial in building up the bigger picture, trying to understand how our world or universe works.

In addition I have an interest in how science and the scientific method is communicated and perceived by the public. I’m always curious as to what people think and understand. Partly so that scientists can get better at communicating their results in a way that is accessible (something which I hope this blog helps to achieve).

Over the last few months, the public have been exposed to one story in particular that I hope will help change public perception of the scientific method. It’s a physics story rather than an Earth Science piece, but it’s very interesting. All the links are from one source, the BBC, detailing how one news outlet covered the story over the last four months, but there are plenty of other news sources available!

It started out with the discovery that scientists had recorded neutrinos (tiny sub-atomic particles) traveling faster than the speed of light (here for the published work on arxiv). This is something that should be impossible, otherwise we starting breaking some fundamental laws like cause and effect.

The scientists themselves were puzzled, they thought it was unlikely to be true, but hadn’t figured out anyway that it could be false. So they opened their results up for scrutiny.

Which caused much discussion. How could this result be true, it would undermine a century of scientific knowledge.

So the experiment was run again, with an improved method, to make sure. And they got the same result.

And last week we learnt that there had been a few small faults in an optical fibre and the receiving electronics. Some of which would have exaggerated the speed of the neutrinos and some which show how a faster than the speed of light speed could have been recorded falsely.

There will be probably be more to come on this story.

One question that emerges from this discussion is what has happened to the public understanding of the subject matter in hand, the nature of the speed of light. In light of these stories, has the public reaction been: “these scientists, they don’t know what they’re doing”. Or, as I’d hope, has it been much more enlightening: “this science is hard, and they’ll get to the right answer eventually, but maybe with some mistakes along the way”.

This process is how science works, slowly, incrementally, with leads that end in dead-ends, experiments that need to be re-run and improved and checked and checked and checked. Sometimes the results aren’t obvious. I hope that through this story, this process is a little more transparent and that the scientific process comes out stronger in the minds of the general public. But has it? I would love to know the thoughts of non-scientists.