Reporters emphasize physicists’ skepticism about results showing c exceeded
Initial reactions to speedy-neutrino news reinforced at Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal.
September 30, 2011Published: September 30, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
An earlier report under the headline “National newspapers react to claim that neutrinos move faster than light” summarized next-day reactions from the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal to the provisional announcement of speed-of-light results from Europe. How those newspapers reacted on the second day may be worth considering as well. All three made certain to emphasize physicists’ skepticism.
The Washington Post’s Brian Vastag’s “Faster than light: Revolution or error?” appeared below the fold on the front page. After the jump, it offered a nice photo of the CERN accelerator that sent the neutrinos to Gran Sasso in Italy. Unfortunately, though, the photo caption could have misled readers about what they were looking at. It said, “The Opera detector in Italy recorded neutrinos arriving a smidgen early.”
The article began with experimenter Dario Autiero emphasizing, after an hour-long talk at CERN, “Therefore, we present to you today this discrepancy, this anomaly.” Only then did Vastag go on to say, “But what an an anomaly it may be”—and to tell why. A sample:
From 2009 through 2011, the massive OPERA detector buried in a mountain in Gran Sasso, Italy, recorded subatomic particles called neutrinos generated at CERN arriving a smidgen early, faster than light can move in a vacuum. If confirmed, the finding would throw more than a century of physics into chaos.
“If it’s correct, it’s phenomenal,” said Rob Plunkett, a scientist at Fermilab, the Department of Energy physics laboratory in Illinois. “We’d be looking at a whole new set of rules” for how the universe works.
Those rules would bend, or possibly break, Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, published in 1905. Radical at the time, the theory tied together space and time, matter and energy, and set a hard limit for the speed of light, later measured to be about 186,000 miles per second.No experiment in 106 years had broken that speed limit.
Vastag also reported that both past and possible future results from Fermilab and an underground detector in Minnesota could end up bearing on the question. And he quoted MIT’s Samuel C. C. Ting, a particle physics Nobel laureate: “I want to congratulate you on a beautiful experiment. The experiment is very carefully done, the systematic error very carefully checked.” Vastag noted:
Even if the finding holds, Einstein’s theory could still be true—up to a point, said some physicists. The faster-than-light neutrino might simply be pointing to an extension, not a rewrite of the rule, much as Einstein’s theories extended, not invalidated, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.
Yet the finding could open up a new understanding of the universe. The neutrinos may have taken a shortcut along a fifth dimension (beyond the three dimensions of space and one of time), as proposed by exotic theories. Another option: There is no ultimate speed limit. Or perhaps there is, but light can’t reach it.
On an interior page, that second day’s New York Times has “After Report on Speed, a Rush of Scrutiny” written by Dennis Overbye. “Once upon a time,” quipped Overbye in his opening sentence, “the only thing that traveled faster than the speed of light was gossip.” He went on to report much of what Vastag reported, in particular the talk by Autiero. Overbye’s report did contain more detailed descriptions of the laboratory equipment at both CERN and Gran Sasso. He emphasized that the “recent history of physics and astronomy is strewn with reports of suspicious data bumps that might be new particles or new planets and—if true—could change the way we think about the world, but then disappear with more data or critical scrutiny.” He added, “Most physicists think the same will happen with this finding.”
The Wall Street Journal also presented an article on inside page, “Speedy Particles Put Einstein to the Test,” with illustrations concerning Einstein, mass-energy equivalence, the neutrinos’ path in the experiment, and a chart comparison of various speedy things alongside the unfathomably speedier speed of light. The WSJ article began, “An experiment purporting to show that subatomic particles can travel faster than light has scientists’ heads spinning. If confirmed, it would undermine key pillars of modern physics.” The piece covered the same ground as the Times and Post articles.
It seems worth reporting as well that in its very next edition, the WSJ presented the op-ed “Has a Speeding Neutrino Really Overturned Einstein?” by the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, a frequent WSJ contributor. “Unlike religion or politics,” said the subheadline, “science will mercilessly pursue the evidence with repeated experiments.” And indeed the op-ed opened on a note of that skepticism: “Einstein wrong? Impossible! That was the reaction of physicists around the world last week when they heard that experiments in Switzerland indicate that Einstein's theory of relativity might be wrong.” And Kaku reported that his “gut reaction ... is that this is a false alarm.” Still, even while respecting the skepticism imperative, Kaku explained the implications for physics in general, and cosmology and nuclear physics in particular, if the results are confirmed.
Kaku wrote at the end, “In science, 100 authorities count for nothing. Experiment counts for everything.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are published in "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.