It is debatable as to what constitutes a great scientific moment. Is it when experiments show clinching evidence of a revolutionary theory or when new experiments begin to throw up numbers and data that threaten well-established scientific theories that we confidently refer to as “fact”? On 23 September, slightly more than 100 years since Albert Einstein set the ultimate speed limit of the universe at 300,000km a second—the speed of light—scientists at CERN announced preliminary evidence that no such barriers exist for neutrinos, perhaps the most mysterious of the subatomic particles. Given there’s still considerable uncertainty whether the measurements were accurate and careful enough to remove any uncertainty that typically surrounds measurements of the speed of subatomic particles, it’s still too early to begin writing obituaries of Einstein’s theories of relativity.
There was a similar conundrum towards the end of the 19th century. Did things emit energy continuously and undulatingly like waves, or was energy given off in fixed, discrete packets? Scientists overwhelmingly believed that it was the former until Einstein’s seminal papers described the physical theory and mathematics necessary to prove that light and energy were indeed emitted as discrete packets. It took nearly 15 years for the theory and mathematics to catch up with experimental evidence of light’s discrete or quantized nature.
Unlike the 19th century, scientific dissemination, like other news media, today travels at lightning speed. No longer are scientific communiqués disseminated only through elaborate conferences and long-drawn-out peer reviews in a handful of journals. In fact, a technical scientific paper describing the results of CERN’s neutrino results is already out and is being discussed by scientists across the world. What constitutes a valid scientific theory is also often a matter of building consensus and support, it could very well be that there might be no traditional moment if and when Einstein’s laws may be formally acknowledged as requiring revision. Just as Einstein gave a more generalized idea of Newton’s and Galileo’s explanations of gravity and relativity, a theory that can explain the strange behaviour of neutrinos may lie several years ahead and —given the complex mathematics that is now the foundation of all modern physics—be unintelligible, but to a chosen few.
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