For over a century, Einstein’s theory of relativity has been one of the unimpeachable pillars of science, so much so that the statement “nothing is faster than light” is often taken as a simple fact of life. It is a theory upon which much of modern physics is based.Several weeks ago, scientists in Europe came across something they shouldn’t have:
…They had measured particles called neutrinos which traveled around six kilometers (3.75 miles) per second faster than the speed of light, determined by Einstein to be the highest velocity possible.
The scientists were cautious. They knew there could have been problems with the experiment and they knew other scientists would question their methods. They promised to continue tests and experiments. From the Washington Post:
A second experiment at the European facility that reported subatomic particles zooming faster than the speed of light — stunning the world of physics — has reached the same result, scientists said late Thursday…‘If it’s correct, it’s phenomenal,’ said Rob Plunkett, a scientist at Fermilab, the Department of Energy physics laboratory in Illinois, in September. ‘We’d be looking at a whole new set of rules’ for how the universe works.
Of course, more experiments will follow. That’s the thing about science. Theories are theories; any scientific theory or hypothesis can always be challenged by new facts.What’s interesting, of course, is how much more mature physicists seem to be than climatologists. Dissent from a scientific paradigm much more firmly established than anything in climate science isn’t greeted with howls of rage, fury and charges of heresy. Many physicists are skeptical, as well they should be, of evidence that seems contrary to decades of experiment and analysis, but the overwhelming mood seems to be one of curiosity rather than rage. Could these new results possibly be real? What would this mean if it is true? How can we check these results to see how fast these neutrinos are really moving?This is how real science operates. While I believe that the climate scientists are broadly correct subject to all the usual qualifications (temperatures are rising, the rise is associated with an accelerated production of greenhouse gasses by human activity, and further increases in greenhouse gas levels look likely to promote continued temperature increases and associated climate change), I continue to think that the heresy-hunting, quack remedy promoting climate change movement is part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And challenges to the conclusions of climate science, and questions about computer models and the predictions they generate need to be answered by careful and reasoned debate, not by name calling and ad hominem arguments.If physicists can control themselves while the most fundamental elements of their worldview are challenged by a handful of researchers with some interesting but quite tricky and potentially flawed results, then the climate world should be able to handle controversy with a little less venom as well. My guess is that the best climate scientists are more interested by the questions critics are asking rather than infuriated by their temerity in doing so. The orthodoxy enforcers and the heresy police tend not to be the finest scientific minds; skepticism and curiosity make for good science, not herd thinking and righteous rage.In any case, as we wait to discover whether some things move faster than light, it’s worth remembering that science is a force that challenges orthodoxies and upends comfortable certainties. Galileo, not the Inquisition, was the scientist and even when he came up with the wrong answers, he knew that his calling in life was to ask questions.