A good question is never answered*

October 28, 2011

Science is a series of revisions, constantly churning; moving, sometimes with a huge lurch, sometimes ever-so-slightly, towards the answer but never quite getting there. Science isn’t a secure, tranquil certainty, it’s confusing, messy, dynamic scepticism.

Scientists know this; indeed, playing one’s part in moving towards certainty is an important reason for being a scientist in the first place. But that’s not always how it looks; from school tests marked with a red tick to the Daily Blah telling us we should definitely eat prunes, there’s always supposed to be an answer; this is right and that is wrong.

Uncertainty, interpretation, queries, possibilities aren’t usually presented as outcomes by scientists, which is why I find the extensive media coverage of the OPERA experiment so interesting. Here is a huge team of scientists who concluded that their results showed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. Quite a daring conclusion, given that if it’s valid, breaks a fundamental concept of the Special Theory of Relativity. The Twitter flock came alive with fleas as the thought hopped from one tweeter to another. Jim Al Khalili offered to eat his boxer shorts if it turned out to be true, albeit carefully reserving the right to happen to be wearing edible pants at the time.

This result has not offered us an ‘answer’ but rather a glimpse into how science works; the whole process of scrutiny, checking and revision (http://tinyurl.com/3qkzkv9). The team has turned to the community and asked for the data to be reviewed, the result to be scrutinised, other postulations to be made and other solutions presented. Admittedly, most of the people doing the checking and revising are likely to be other physicists, not non-maths-speaking members of the public (like me) but the OPERA team has deposited their paper in a publicly-accessible archive (the arXiv website (http://arxiv.org/abs/1109.4897v1)), so it could just be that someone, with no formal qualifications, working in an office job, in a small quiet country, might be the person who makes the breakthrough. That could never happen.

*A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea. (John Ciardi)