Einstein may have been wrong. New evidence suggests that the speed of light, central to his special theory of relativity, may not be the ultimate speed limit. If the findings hold up, everything we think we know about the inner workings of our universe will need to be revised.
This potential discovery reminds us that science is a continual process which is rarely conclusive. That should inform our regard for politicized scientific claims.
A team of researchers at CERN pass the time by shooting muon neutrinos from Switzerland to Italy. While doing so, they noticed something they weren’t expecting.
… the particles showed up 60 billionths of a second earlier than they would have done if they had travelled at the speed of light.
This is a tiny fractional change — just 20 parts in a million — but one that occurs consistently.
The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 16,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.
But the group understands that what are known as “systematic errors” could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit.
That has motivated them to publish their measurements.
This is how real science works. Observations lead to hypotheses. Hypotheses are tested through experimentation. Results are scrutinized and duplicated to inform theories. Certainty is rare. Laws are few.
You wouldn’t know that as a causal observer of political discourse. Science is often evoked as an authority rather than an empirical yet uncertain process. Anthropogenic climate change is a “fact” established by “consensus,” its skeptics ranked alongside Holocaust deniers.
The potential derailment of Einstein reminds us of science’s limitations. They are the limitations of man, finite perception and finite knowledge. Our theories are all contingent upon the next unforeseen discovery.