If you follow science at all (and maybe even if you don’t), you probably heard last year that scientists had discovered neutrinos that travelled faster than light. [SciTechStory: Have some neutrinos broken the law?] If true, this would be a big deal, knocking out laws of physics and causing dear doctor Einstein to roll in his grave, etc. What most physicists said at the time was something like, ‘Well, if it is true, then it’s a wonderful surprise, but it’s probably not true.’ It wasn’t true. It turned out that a faulty optical cable connection had affected the GPS readings and thereby the speed of light calculations. Today (March 30, 2012) it was announced that two leaders of the OPERA consortium, which conducted the original experiment, resigned following a vote of no-confidence. Thus, unlike in some other kinds of disasters – say financial collapse – scientists are willing and able to mete out consequences.
Actually, the whole incident goes deeper than that. It shows how modern science is conducted, warts and all. The original blockbuster announcement was indicative of the pressure on scientists to make an impact with the media. Funding, reputation and institutional positioning all play a role in how such highly unusual and likely very controversial discoveries are handled. In this case, the OPERA organization tried to say that its findings were preliminary, but that was mostly obscured by the explosive coverage – which was predictable. Once the announcement was made, two other aspects of normal scientific procedure kicked in – criticism and skepticism were voiced, and new experiments were planned and carried out. The new experiments, some of them conducted by the OPERA team, failed to validate the faster-than-light speed of neutrinos. Then, under internal audit looking for causes of a potential misreading of data, the faulty cable connection was discovered. Finally, under censure from a majority of the members of the OPERA consortium, ‘heads rolled.’ It wasn’t a unanimous vote of no-confidence, but sufficiently clear to indicate the necessity of resignation by the two men who were the public face of the original announcement.
Sometimes the ‘self correcting’ mechanisms of science work well. For the exciting but unfortunately erroneous case of the faster-than-light neutrinos, this seems to be true.