Some scientists over there in that Europe place made an announcement yesterday. They have apparently observed sub-atomic particles called neutrinos (which is like the “lite” version of the neutron, I assume) traveling faster than the speed of light. Now, you may think this isn’t a big deal, since Spock and Riker and a bevy of hot chicks do this every weeknight on your local FOX affiliate, but to scientists, this is a really big deal, because there’s a lot of pretty well supported science that says this can’t happen.
Of course, everybody in the science journalism/blogging/explaining/enthusiast community immediately went into full-on “DON’T GET TOO EXCITED” mode. Phil Plait, an astronomer who writes a blog I generally really enjoy, immediately called for everybody to calm down. The xkcd dude did a timely comic about the subject, and all you have to do is type “FTL neutrinos” into Google to get a bunch of hits from similar sites and blogs all saying the same thing: Chill out, calm down, it’s probably not real.
I get why they’re doing it. This happens a lot–scientists announce some amazing, possibly world-changing results, and then other scientists look at it and say “Oh wait, you fucked up right here,” or “hang on, you forgot about this” and it turns out not to be true. That’s how science works. Some science dudes will “discover” something, and then all the other science dudes will check it out to make sure it’s for real. Meanwhile, the public sees “SCIENCE DISCOVERS AMAZING THING” and thinks “Oh cool, next year we’ll have free flights to the moon!” and then gets pissed off when it doesn’t happen.
Except… is that really what happens? I know that’s often the perception, but is it really that “most people” get fooled by this process, or is it mainly a vocal minority? I know I’ve never been accused of over-estimating the intelligence level of the general public (shit, this entire site exists because lots of people are dumb) but my general experience is that “most people” in fact are cool with this whole process. If the average person thinks about this a year from now and asks “Hey, whatever happened to that whole FTL neutrino thing?” and gets told “Oh, that turned out not to be true.” I think the reaction is far more likely to be “Oh, bummer.” rather than “HOLY SHIT THOSE STUPID SCIENTISTS WHAT A BUNCH OF IDIOTS!”
Now, I’m not denying that there are a lot of people who will react that way. But you know what? Nothing Phil Plait says now or in the future will ever convince those people that scientists aren’t all a bunch of idiots or that scientists aren’t all covering up “the truth.” There’s almost no point at all in the constant stream of “don’t get too excited!” blog posts, because the people who want to believe the big conspiracy will still believe it, and the rest of us don’t fucking need to be told how science works.
You know what? I want to get excited about this. How amazing would this be if it turns out to be true? A huge chunk of physics will suddenly need to be drastically revised in order to incorporate this data. And all the people crowing “This can’t be true because it would contradict 100 years of established science!” can all fuck right off, because that’s not exactly an unprecedented thing. We’re only a little more than 100 years removed from the last time it happened, in fact. Some guys you may have heard of named Einstein and Planck, along with some other dudes with funny names like Bohr and Heisenberg and Schrodinger (I know, seriously! That’s his actual name!) and a bunch of others I can’t be bothered to look up turned physics completely on its head starting in 1900 and the dust didn’t really settle until the 1960s.
Yes, I completely understand that this probably will turn out to be wrong. Either the experiment will turn out to have been flawed or nobody will be able to reproduce the results. And yes, I understand why scientists are loathe to accept results that contradict current theory and will do everything they can think of to find fault with these findings. That’s a good thing. That’s how good science works–you don’t throw out everything and start over on a whim. I completely expect actual scientists to proceed slowly and carefully here. They will not chase after dragons until they’re pretty sure that dragons exist.
But I am not a scientist, so telling me not to get excited over and over just pisses me off. Stop condescending to me and just let me be excited if I want! This could be a game changer, an honest-to-Newton revolution. For pretty much my entire life, physics has been boring. It’s consisted of stuff like string theory that is untestable and big atom smashers that seem to do nothing but confirm stuff we were pretty sure about already. Nothing really new, really ground shaking has happened in physics for awhile. Forgive me if I get a tad bit excited that maybe that’s about to change.
Isaac Asimov was once quoted as saying that in a perfect world, a scientist’s every experiment works perfectly. He later wrote an entire essay explaining why he regretted that quote. In reality, what nearly every scientist wants is an experiment that fails. An experiment that produces such surprising results that entirely new theories have to be worked up to explain it. He pointed out that one of the most famous experiments in history is famous precisely because it was an abject failure. Not getting the results you expect is probably the most exciting thing in science. Stop telling me it’s not!