There is still a lot of buzz going on about the announcement from CERN over the possibility that they had detected neutrinos traveling faster than c, the unfettered speed of light. Whether or not the results overturn that element of relativity is neither here nor there. Just as most of us get along quite well using Newton’s physics, an amendment to Einstein’s really won’t matter a lot in practice. GPS satellites won’t suddenly stop working, nuclear bombs won’t all explode, and the universe won’t instantly stop expanding. The thing that does matter is that it shows the world how science works.
How science works. This is no small thing. Politicians, snake-oil salesmen, and fear-mongers have been trying to co-opt the word “science” for a while, now. They cherry-pick elements of research, use only a subset of results, or deliberately misrepresent data and conclusions that come from the scientific community. As a result, children don’t get vaccines to keep them and others safe and healthy, environmental stopgaps are delayed because of imagined doubts about climate change, and an entire generation is being encouraged to be scientifically ignorant in favor of mythology.
On this sort of stage, the barkers would be skipping down the streets shouting how Einstein was a hack who duped the world in his pursuit of fame. They would say that this proves that no science can be trusted as “fact” because of the politics of the scientific community.
The wondrous thing about the CERN announcement is that it shines a light on the scientific method. They discovered this faster-than-light anomaly in their data. What did they do? Did they immediately go out and issue a press release about how they toppled the great mind of the 20th century? No. They ran the experiment again. And again. They ran it again around 16,000 times. They tried to account for everything that could be effecting the data. And still the result persisted.
After years of testing, the CERN team finally announced their results. But not in some vainglorious show of chest-thumping, but as a call-to-arms. They put it out for the scientific community to check their work. See where there could be errors. And then to have others repeat their experiments. In others words, they turned to their community to ask them to do what they do so well: science.
You see, science is a process of refinement. The goal is to, as accurately as possible, find methods to describe the world/universe around us. If our results are accurate enough, we hope to be able to make reasonably accurate predictions about the processes we’ve learned; e.g. if we drop a ball, will it drop at the same rate today as it did yesterday? If not, then why not? But the methods we devise are seldom, if ever, exact. So we constantly test to try to get a little bit closer. Every now and again, a treasured theory gets poked in the ribs. But, since science isn’t religious dogma, we instead embrace the possibilities of what our new insights allow us to see.
When the CERN team presented their results to the scientific community, it wasn’t to crow. It was a plea to show them how they may have erred. The audience didn’t deny the results that went against what they’d been taught and had learned, but they were incredibly skeptical (as was the CERN team). If only presidential candidates were as conscientious. But, that’s how science done well works. That’s how knowledge grows. That’s why you are reading this on a fantastic device instead of sitting on the ground listening to a traveling herald. How marvelous that the public gets to see the method in action.