Director Klaus Jungmann of the KVI (Kernfysisch Versneller Instituut) completely understands why his colleagues at CERN in Geneva have publically announced their observations of neutrinos, which appear to be faster than light. Partly thanks to that publicity, the results will quickly be tested all over the world.
Like many physicists, including those at CERN, Jungmann has his doubts about whether these particles really have travelled faster than light. The chance of an error in the experiment is much greater than the likelihood of suddenly needing to rewrite the laws of physics. However, unlike in the social sciences, in the natural sciences there’s no shame in having to admit later that a measurement was inaccurate or an experiment failed: ‘If two physicists disagree about a statement, then you can do a new experiment to ask nature. Once there is an answer, there’s no problem in continuing to work together.’
The excitement of the past few days surrounding the observation of particles that move faster than light is understandable – it could prove that there is an even deeper foundation to physics than the one that Einstein laid. Klaus Jungmann is also reminded of the hype around ‘cold nuclear fusion’ in 1989: ‘Something similar happens about every 4-5 years. Physicists think that they’ve made a breakthrough. In the vast majority of cases, there turns out to have been something wrong with the experiment. That’s something I’m well used to by this stage.’
As far as Jungmann is able to judge, his colleagues have worked very carefully, but in this case, too, he sees plenty of alternative explanations for the measurements made by the CERN physicists: ‘Just take the installation itself. The time difference we’re talking about is so small, that with the speed of light we’re talking of less than twenty metres. And that’s with particles that are travelling 732 km through the earth’s crust, from Geneva under the Alps through to Italy. The researchers claim that they know the distance accurately to within 20 cm thanks to GPS, but I’d like to see that independently tested. The corrections that have to be applied to the result in the experiment are also many times greater than the observed effect.’
According to Jungmann, it’s a good idea to announce this kind of remarkable observation to the world: ‘Something like this has to be published this way, as a group. About a hundred people are involved. If you keep it quiet and one of them mentions it later at a symposium, that person would get all the honour and the information would be released into the world in an uncontrolled way.’ In addition, publicity increases the chances of money being made available to repeat the experiment, which is the intention in the United States and in Japan.
Jungmann is looking forward to the further testing of the experiment: ‘It goes without saying that it is a remarkable observation and it will be difficult to duplicate. I really don’t think that we have achieved a new breakthrough in physics. The CERN physicists are also being very careful. But even if these results are based on an error, there’s absolutely nothing for the researchers to be ashamed of. Things like that happen in physics all the time.’
Prof. Klaus Jungmann
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