The hour of the amateur scientist – FTL neutrinos part 2

So. There have been lots of responses to my last article on the faster than light neutrinos. Some readers have asked me to explain to them the consequences of the measurement being correct. Others have been interested to hear more about the changing landscape of digital publishing. While a rare few were quietly satisfied with the idea that the neutrino result was well off being a ‘discovery’, and that we would have to wait patiently for a few years to find out what it might all mean.

Until, of course only a week later headline news that ‘neutrino physicists have confirmed faster-than-light measurement’. So, have I changed my stance on whether this measurement can stand up to scientific scrutiny? Or am I still sitting decidedly upon the fence? Sorry to disappoint so early on in my post. But, no, I haven’t changed my stance.

It is still, in my opinion, extremely unlikely that these results will be repeatable by another experimental group. What we are seeing at present, is the natural next step for this set of work. The OPERA collaboration, who had made a fairly well understood – if not unexpected – measurement, have reviewed their work again, and are now confident enough with their methodology to move forwards and submit their paper for publication and formal peer review.

That is it.

Paper amendments are not new discoveries

This process of measurement – analysis – submission of internal note (or submission to the arXiv pre-print server in this case) – further measurement and analysis – submission of paper to journal… has been happening for decades in the physics community. In fact, for such a controversial paper, we will probably see several rounds of peer review, a rejection, a revision, and amendments to the manuscript before final publication (which I am fairly confident will happen). I do not deem each step of this publication process news worthy including the final acceptance and publication of the work. Neither does publication in a reputable journal mean ‘discovery’. It takes numerous, aligned publications before a measurement is termed a discovery. But yet again, I can also understand why this paper is making its way – as news – to the interested public. This piece of physics is exciting, and if the masses are getting just a sniff of a reason why this result matters, I can understand why they are ‘on the case’. And so they should be.

So don’t be fooled into thinking I am against the discussion and debate of the result in the public eye. I think it is fantastic. And it gets better still: we are at a junction in history where coverage in the popular press might finally be igniting meaningful dialogue between the informed public and physicists.

For evidence, we need only go to the pre-print arXiv and type in ‘faster than light neutrinos’. There is already a plethora of academic papers – theoretical and phenomenological work – discussing, hypothesising, and offering up answers. The attention which the public is giving these communities is motivating their work.

One particular group of physicists in Bristol have even made a joke about it -submitting a paper with the following title and two-word abstract: ‘Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?’ ‘Probably not’. When else, have we seen such complex technical content become the focus of a joke which is arguably for a wider audience than the physicists themselves?

Joking aside, and from a physicist who knows how questions from non-experts can somehow provoke a different perspective, and a deeper, more meaningful level of thinking. I think the public’s watchful eye could be doing great things for physics at this junction.

Let us not forget also the time in which we live. If we even briefly consider what the digital revolution has done for other sectors, we can perhaps begin to get excited about science communication becoming a two way process and some of those excellently phrased questions getting back to the physicists, and making them think, too.

The hour of the amateur scientist?

In the fashion industry, the blogosphere has created out of nowhere a large number of high-profile bloggers who have fully penetrated the front row at fashion week – a previously insular and exclusive community of designers and magazine editors. In this industry, it is well-documented that there has been a paradigm shift from a prescriptive, one-way process of creation, design, and emulation, to a two-way or ‘cyclic’ one. Where-by street fashion and popular culture has impacted more quickly and more directly upon catwalk design than ever before.

Are then amateur scientists, bloggers, and would-be-science writers at an analogous moment for physics? i.e. is the ‘girl on the street’ now harnessing a power to affect academic science and the process of discovery by engaging in debate and discussion? I would like to think so, and I can see evidence in support of it, at least to satisfy my own hopeful mind.

More importantly, if it is indeed the hour of the amateur scientist – expert or not – your opinions, perceptions and most importantly, your questions count too.

So what do you think? Do the neutrino’s speed on?

Tweet your views to @Rosie_Walton and @EuroScientist hashtag #FTLneutrinos.

Rosie Walton

Rosie has a degree in physics and started her career working in research in particle physics at the LHC, CERN. She now works in Knowledge Management for the science and engineering sector, which involves addressing the challenges complex organisations face in using and passing on technical knowledge. She is a qualified teacher of Mathematics and Physics, and previously: editor of the New Journal of Physics, Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical and the Journal of Physics Condensed Matter, as well as science advisor for Stephen Hawking’s 2008 Channel Four and US Discovery documentary ‘Master of the Universe’.

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