Back in 2008 the scientists at CERN seemed surprised by the concern expressed in the media that, by switching on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). they might create a black hole that would destroy the planet. In tones meant to reassure, the scientists explained that, while, in theory, they could create a small black hole, the chances of it staying stable for long enough to become a problem were very small.
The public, unsurprisingly perhaps, were not entirely sanguine about the odds.
The scientists went through a risk assessment process and decided to go ahead. They believed that what they were doing only reproduced naturally occurring phenomena that literally happen every day.
Recognising that people might not just take their word for it, CERN got quotes from the rock stars of the physics world, saying that there was no risk, honest and that anyone who said differently didn’t understand physics.
My favourite quote is from Academician Vitaly Ginzburg, Nobel Laureate in Physics, Lebedev Institute, Moscow, and Russian Academy of Science:
“To think that LHC particle collisions at high energies can lead to dangerous black holes is rubbish. Such rumors were spread by unqualified people seeking sensation or publicity.“
You can find all the quotes here.
Of course the Collider was switched on and so far we have not been dragged into the maw of a widening event horizon.
What I took away from this experience was that scientists see risk differently from the rest of us and that when a bunch of Noble Laureates in Physics tell you something you believe them or you produce hard evidence (or at least good math) to defend your case. If you can’t do this then you risk being labelled as “unqualified” or worse, “sensationalist”.
This week the scientists at CERN were back in the news, this time facing a risk that they take much more seriously than the possibility of creating a black hole that will eat the planet. This time they risked saying the Albert Einstein may have been wrong.
CERN scientists fired a beam of neutrinos from their lab near Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy, 730 kilometres away and measured how long it took them to arrive.
Antonio Ereditato, the spokesman for the project explained to the press that the team already knew the shortest time that the neutrinos could take on their journey:
“Everybody knows that the speed limit is c, the speed of light”
Actually I’m sure that something not everyone knows. Those of you who know (without the aid of google) that the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second get a gold star from Mr. Spock. Those of you who can explain why this is the maximum speed anything can move at have a degree in physics.
Ereditato went on to say,
“To our great surprise we found an anomaly.”
It seems the neutrinos got to Gran Sasso faster than the speed of light.
The scientists were not happy.
As Ereditato put it,
“if you find some matter particle such as the neutrino going faster than light, this is something which immediately shocks everybody, including us.”
They checked and rechecked their results and then published them, almost apologetically and asked colleagues to please try and prove them wrong.
So why are the scientists reacting this way to the results of this experiment?
Why are they not selling “Go Neutrino – Faster that the Speed of Light” T-shirts in the CERN gift shop?
To understand that you have to come back to the most commonly understand reason for why it is impossible for an object to travel faster that the speed of light – because Albert Einstein says so.
CERN scientists may see no risk in creating mini-black holes but they see a big risk in standing up and being the first person to say: “Albert got it wrong.”
So we wait to see whether the other labs confirm the results. This won’t be easy. The Japanese lab that can do this has been out of commission since the earthquake and the one in the US may not have the level of accuracy needed to do the measurements.
So now is the time to go to you physics friends and ask them whether they’re willing to roll the dice against Einstein.
I doubt that they will risk their careers on it.