why opera’s lead scientist should’ve stayed
Last week, there was an odd bit news of news one could expect to at least be mentioned by a physics blog or two but which was left largely unnoticed save for a blip on a few news sites. The physicist in charge of OPERA when the experiment found the alleged faster than light neutrinos, Antonio Ereditato, resigned from his post after a vote of no confidence from other scientists working on the experiment.
You can see why they might think Ereditato had to go after follow up trials showed that OPERA’s revolutionary data wasn’t special relativity being violated by ghostly particles they were observing but a loose cable, and all other efforts to verify the work they presented found neutrinos to be very much in line with the cosmic speed limit. In their minds, they looked like fools to the scientific community and if the coordinator of their experiment can’t rule out loose wires before announcing a potentially paradigm-shifting discovery to the entire world, he probably shouldn’t coordinate the experiment any further. And yet, as understandable as their annoyance may be, pushing out Ereditato was not the right thing to dobecause while he did make a mistake, he followed the scientific process to the letter.
By it’s nature, science is a process of trial and error. What are experiments but an attempt to see if your ideas are right, or at least on the right track? Sure, it seems somewhat silly that a group of highly trained scientists’ immense experiment was upset by some loose wiring but come on, haven’t all of us forgot a little detail, then wondered what the problem could be when things didn’t work the way we expected? Considering all the size, scope, and technical intricacy of OPERA, finding a loose cable isn’t anywhere as easy as it seems. What our takeaway from this episode should be is how public discourse about potentially revolutionary scientific news should flow.
We had a tentative announcement basically saying “we may be wrong, but if we’re right, this may be huge,” and asking others to review the work. We then had scientists do what they do best and assail what the OPERA team presented from every angle until the issue was found and subsequent trials showed that all other facilities still registered normal data on neutrinos. The cable was adjusted, scientists moved on, and as far as we know, the process of experimentation and discovery continues. Meanwhile, Ereditato did not accuse skeptics of trying to deny his grand discovery but asked for cooperation, ideas, and more experiments. He did everything right from the vantage point of those looking at OPERA from the outside. So why oust him?
Kicking him out sends a message we really don’t want to send to other scientists, that making a mistake on a project that received a high level of visibility means your career will be hurt, that you cannot afford to be wrong. Would he really step down if the neutrino measurement results did not get the explosive media attention they received? Would this whole matter just quietly went away and after a big laugh about loose wiring the OPERA team got back to work? Sure they may have made a mistake this time this time but tomorrow they could come up with something really spectacular, and we should be encouraging scientists to announce their big finds or provocative results for others to review so we don’t miss breakthroughs rather than making them think twice if they should even pursue a particular experiment as not to endanger their jobs.
After all, the best scientists are not the ones who got the most things right, but the ones who experimented and learned the most. The sheer amount of knowledge they generated from their experience is what cemented their legacies. Had they dug in, pursuing a narrow grant within a very limited discipline, and had to justify every day spent on a tangential little project to a supervisor only interested in papers, impact factors, and bean counting, it’s doubtful that they’d be able to accomplish even a tenth of what they did. I hope that Ereditato’s case is not a precedent for other high profile coordinators of scientific projects, one that will prompt more confidentiality and less peer-review.