Jonathan Wald is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at McGill University, specializing in science and technology studies, social theory, and the anthropology of climate change. His dissertation, “Eco-Horror: Facing Climate Change in Minas Gerais, Brazil,” builds on collaborations with state climate scientists seeking to address the climate crisis amidst anti-democratic uprisings.
Breaking the Cosmic Speed Limit? A Case Study for Science and Technology Studies
From 2009 to 2011, scientists working at CERN, one of the most prestigious and well-equipped physics labs in Europe, fired beams of subatomic neutrinos to an affiliated Italian lab buried under the Gran Sasso Mountain, 730 kilometers away. To the amazement of the world physics community, the lab reported that some of the neutrinos arrived 60.7 billionths of a second earlier than expected. This tiny discrepancy had huge implications because it meant that the neutrinos were travelling faster than the speed of light. Since Einstein’s time, the speed of light was believed to be the cosmic speed limit. Nothing can possibly move faster than light through a vacuum (299,792,458 meters per second), but the CERN experiment seemed to break that cosmic law. If the experiment was valid, everything contemporary physics knew about particles, energy, and even the passage of time itself would need to be reevaluated.
The global media was intrigued by the potential. Headlines announced “Roll Over Einstein” (Jordans & Borenstein, 2011) and that the new experiment would “Rewrite Physics” (Spotts, 2011). Yet many physicists remained skeptical. A huge claim like this needs evidence to support it, and one of the central features of the scientific method is that experiments can be recreated and checked. For example, when a science textbook states that “water freezes at 0 oC,” you don’t need to accept that on faith. You can put a thermometer in water, place it in a freezer, and check the temperature as it turns to ice. In principle, the CERN experiment should have been no different, just with much more sophisticated measuring equipment. If you had a timer that is accurate down to the billionth of a second and could track the movement of neutrinos, you could also replicate CERN’s experiment. Until the experiment was replicated, however, the original results could not be considered certain.
At this point, CERN’s exceptional prestige and funding started to work against it. The lab was so well-funded and well-equipped that few other labs had the equipment necessary to reproduce the CERN experiment. Two labs came close. The first was Fermilab in the United States, which had already reported faster-than-light neutrinos in 2007, but with lower-sensitivity equipment that made the results inconclusive. No one could be sure if the particles were actually faster than light or if it was just a measurement error. Upgrading the equipment to the sensitivity required to check CERN’s results was expensive and time consuming. It would take months before Fermilab was able to check CERN’s research findings.
The second potential lab was the J-PARC particle lab in Japan. This lab was already conducting similar experiments with appropriately sensitive equipment and might have been able to provide a more immediate confirmation of CERN’s results. Unfortunately, just a few months before the CERN team published their findings, a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck seventy kilometers off the coast of Japan. It set off the enormous tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Due to the environmental devastation and leaking radiation, the nearby J-PARC lab was temporarily shut down.
Between logistical challenges at Fermilab and environmental disasters at J-PARC, no lab was able to attempt replicating CERN’s finding. Eventually, internal efforts to replicate the experiment uncovered two potential errors in the timing equipment that likely produced the tiny discrepancy in the neutrino’s speed. The neutrinos did not actually travel faster than light. As of the time of this writing (2021), the speed of light remains a fixed constant and the maximum speed of the universe.
CERN’s publication and then retraction of these findings might look like a story of scientific failure. In a certain sense, physicists did not learn anything new about light or neutrinos. But for scholars of Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field of social science that examines scientific practices and the processes by which scientists come to know about the world, the CERN case highlights some of the central features of scientific research. First, the story of how CERN published a massive finding only to have it eventually overturned reminds us that science is a community practice. Without a community of other researchers and labs that can verify their experiment, the scientists who conducted the original experiment were not able to say that they had learned something new with absolute confidence. In other words, CERN’s experiment was not complete without a community to confirm it.
Second, the struggles of both Fermilab and J-PARC highlight how science does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, discoveries about the world are dependent upon a wide range of factors. Funding limitations affect, among other things, what kind of equipment a lab can afford. Environmental events like an unpredictable seismic shift can set off a chain of events that in turn shape what kinds of experiments we can do and what can be known about the world. In other words, science happens in particular positions. Beyond the research community, the arrangements of institutions, finances, environments, and media have direct impacts on the practices of scientists. STS scholars study precisely how these economic, political, social, cultural, or environmental contexts shape science, whether in European experimental physics labs or Indigenous knowledge practices. Even if CERN didn’t completely alter the way that we understand physics with this experiment, the story of the experiment’s “failure” provides a clear illustration of the day-to-day challenges of conducting scientific research in today’s world.
- Think about your own experiences as students at an academic institution. What kinds of social, cultural, environmental, economic, or political forces shape your experiences of learning?
- What can STS contribute to scientific research? What can it contribute to public discussions about science?
Find a science news story in your preferred newspaper or news source. Write the title or keyword at the center of a sheet of paper. Then, think of the varied contexts, people, resources, environments, or objects which are involved in this story. Write them down connected to the central issue. Do any of these new elements also involve additional communities or contexts? Continue the exercise with the sub-elements until you have a complex web of the many different kinds of elements involved in the original scientific story.
Jordans, F., and Borenstein, S. (2011, September 22). Roll over Einstein: Law of physics challenged. Phys.org. https://phys.org/news/2011-09-cern-faster-than-light-particle.html
Spotts, P. (2011, September 22). Neutrino particle traveling faster than light? Two ways it could rewrite physics. Christian Science Monitor. https://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/0922/Neutrino-particle-traveling-faster-than-light-Two-ways-it-could-rewrite-physics