Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity presumes that the speed of light in vacuum, which is denoted by the letter “c,” is constant at around 300,000 km/sec. The speed of light through transparent material, however, is lower than c. Einstein’s theory also claims that c is the highest speed in the universe. No form of energy or matter can travel faster than c. The constancy of the speed of light in vacuum and being the speed limit in the universe are the cornerstones of the special theory of relativity. This theory is itself one of the fundamentals of modern Physics. If c was not constant or if it can be exceeded by any matter or energy, then a new physics would be needed.
This is why physicists across the world were shocked by the finding of a research group in Italy in September 2011. Conducting an experiment called OPERA, the team claimed to have found that fundamental particles known as neutrinos travelled faster than c in that experiment. The OPERA finding, which the team checked for six months before announcing it, was expectedly received with suspicion and calls were made for the results to be reproduced. Actually, some members of the OPERA team itself refused to sign the original paper, as they wanted more time to check the results. OPERA reported in November 2011 a replication of their earlier finding, and most sceptical members of the team now came on board. But that reassurance was short-lived.
On the 23rd of February 2012, the OPERA team found two possible sources of error that could have led to their measuring the speed of the neutrinos as being higher than c. One is a faulty cable and the other is a flaw in the timing in the experiment’s master clock. This was followed in less than a month by a more serious setback. A similar experiment, known as ICARUS, announced in the middle of March 2012 by a rival team contradicted the OPERA finding. By the end of March, the OPERA team itself had confirmed that the two possible sources of error that they identified did indeed explain their extraordinary claim.
These developments led to the resignation of Professor Antonio Ereditato, the spokesman of the OPERA team, and Dario Autiero, its coordinator. The hostile reactions of the scientific community to the findings of OPERA and these resignations should be the most interesting news to the outsider. The data is interesting to the observing physicists, but what is of interest to the observer of those physicists is the metadata — that is the story of the story.
In the eyes of the scientific community, the serious mistake that the OPERA team made was not their failure to notice a faulty connection or an error with a timing device. It was their daring suggestion that Einstein could be wrong. The OPERA scientists challenged something that physicists and other scientists accept as strongly as religious believers accept the premises of their faiths. While making small challenges and changes to a theory is an intrinsic part of scientific practice, challenging fundamental concepts is not something that scientists would welcome. It is fascinating how the spokesman of the ICARUS team, Nobel prize winner Carlo Rubbia, described the results of his team: “Our results are in agreement with what Einstein would like to have.” Dare challenging Einstein’s assumptions, or for that matter any fundamental concept, and be ready to be ridiculed, see your reputation in tatters, and have your career ruined. You may make mistakes challenging little things, and you will be forgiven. You may even insist on what looks to all like a stupid position; that would at least be useful for many to show how wrong you are and how right they are. But you may not suggest something that would imply all other scientists have got it wrong for a long time. You may not suggest something that cause seismic change to the scientific landscape, or what the great historian of science Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shift.”
In his 1962 seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn used the term “paradigm” to refer to the framework within which scientific thinking is expected to take place. This framework consists of the accepted facts, assumptions, methods, and standards in that discipline. These are the building blocks of scientific theory and the worldview adopted by the practitioners of that science. The scientist works within this framework or paradigm. The assumptions that they set out to test, the experimental and theoretical methods they use, and the standards they apply have to comply with the established paradigm. This is how Kuhn powerfully articulates this:
The study of paradigms …. is what mainly prepares the student for membership in the particular scientific community with which he will later practice. Because he there joins men who learned the bases of their field from the same concrete models, his subsequent practice will seldom evoke overt disagreement over fundamentals. Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.1
But real progress occurs when tradition is breached, and this kind of change is a painful process that does not take place naturally in science. The physicist and founder of the Quantum theory Max Planck had pointed out that:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
This may not be reconcilable with the image of the scientist as the ultimate objective seeker of truth, but it is an accurate image that describes characteristics of human nature that not even the love of science or truth can remove, even if high self-awareness and targeted training might ameliorate.
As I have already pointed out, while gradual scientific progress is driven by the development and enhancement of the prevailing paradigm, radical and transformational change in science is the result of a paradigm shift, i.e. when the longstanding paradigm is itself challenged and replaced by a new one.
The suggestion that the speed of light in vacuum may not represent the maximum speed in the universe is an assumption that goes too far as far as the current paradigm in physics is concerned. It is not something that can be accommodated within the established model; it demands a paradigm shift. It threatens to change modern physics and replace it with something new, possibly in the same way that Einstein’s theories of the special and general relativity repositioned and replaced Newton’s mechanics and law of gravity. But that does not mean that suggesting it, even if experimental faults were behind such a suggestion, should make scientists the subject of shame or ridicule.
The concepts that the speed of light in vacuum is constant and that it is the speed limit in the universe are dissimilar to anything we know or can observe about “speed” in general. While philosophical in nature, this observation alone, I believe, is sufficient to keep on questioning whether these two concepts are really unchangeable and universal, as the physics of the last 100 years or so suggests, or they look so only in the paradigm that they co-created and belong to. I think this fact is equally sufficient to suggest that today’s absolute and immutable facts are likely to turn out to be temporary and transient once a new paradigm starts to emerge.
1. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 11.