Saturday, September 24, 2011

Warp Factor 1.0000001

The whole universe is all a flutter with news of the potential, maybe, perhaps, could-possibly-be-true little neutrino that could.  This is, to put it mildly, exciting news. But perhaps not for the reasons you think I think it is.  First, the result is almost certainly not true, which makes this even more exciting to me.

As I've mentioned here and elsewhere before now, I get my fair share of kooks. I'm sure this is nothing compared to what a working scientist gets, and mathematics isn't exactly a place of great public interest. But still, every so often I get some hard-nosed whack-o with a pet theory about some mathematical revelation (that's almost certainly never truly mathematical) that's going to let his name echo through the ages as The One.  In most of my moods, I give them lip service and suggest that they might want to consider taking classes in mathematics as their new problem is handily answered at x level, or in x year of undergraduate mathematics studies.

Sometimes though I'm far less charitable, and I respond in that flip kind of way that strongly suggests I can't be bothered because my time is just far too important to spend on the likes them.  This is, I freely confess, elitism. And I don't like it. In one case, my response to a gentleman and his pet theory was something along the lines that though science ultimately benefits all of us, the public are largely irrelevant because, though the final consumers of the technological crop harvested, they aren't part of the conversation, and as such aren't a proper concern for scientists to take into account.

I regret saying that, and it is on its face a fairly stupid, elitist thing to have said. I'm human; sue me. Back to today's issue.  I am pleased to see that this is warranting front page articles, opinion pieces galore, blogs are active, twitter's infested (one person even chastised me for retweeting a physicist's tweet, asking if we'd somehow been put on the 'alert us' list) with tweets from prominent physicists. The public are part of this conversation, and I think it's absolutely wonderful.

Here we have all the makings of a proper scientific controversy blowing in the wind. No one knows the right answer, though all scientists I've seen or talked to advise strong caution for all the obvious reasons - namely, that the result is far likelier to be an error somewhere than a true recording of a particle exceeding the speed of the light.  Though, all do hasten to add it could be true that the light barrier was indeed broken.

And so it goes. And it's being held in public. Since I'm fairly confident this is an error (but might not be!), I think it's important that this failure be public so that we have a current, very public (and potentially very bitter - I hope!) example of a real scientific controversy. I hope there's some good drama, and that the full brutality of bruised egos churned out by the always-friendly crucible of peer-review is on display.

But why?

It's a potential coup de grâce to science-deniers. Or at least a great vehicle to teach the public what a controversy in science really is, that the public might better differentiate the creationist claptrap from the real deal. So, contra-myself of a couple of years ago, I hope to see the public more attentive, involved and a target of scientific discourse. After all, seeing the real process by which science spits out that which is wrong is sufficient a display to let scientists-in-the-making know what to expect in their professional lives. Seeing the broken shell of a failed experiment kicked off the stage of progress with a look of disdain for having to do it in the first place would be a pleasant frame of reference. All the more reason because by all accounts everyone involved here is perfectly on the level. Honesty. Rigorous discussion and debate. All of it. Publicly on display. And the public seem to care. This could only be better if I knew someone, somewhere had stapled Casey Luskin, Judy Mikovits and all the rest of the kooks to a bench to make them watch this shit Clockwork Orange style.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the little neutrinos that could won't be remembered for breaking the speed of light barrier; rather, they'll go down in history as the little particles that ushered in a new era of public understanding of science.  *crosses fingers*

Of course, the other outcome is simply that I'm writing this blog in the future, and you're reading it in my past. Either way, these little buggers have the potential to revolutionize science, no?

Perhaps an entirely new field of science would open up.  Particle psychics? Cosmological clairvoyants? 

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