'Settled' science?


"Anti-science" is a term flung about freely in political discussions, usually from the left. Republicans and conservatives are supposed to be anti-science because they (or some of them) reject the basic premise of man-made global warming, balk at embryonic stem-cell research, and (the biggie) disbelieve in evolution. Of course, there are shades of meaning and graduations and scientific disputes in each of those fields, but when it comes to politics, simpler is better. And what could be better than rolling up all your political opponents and dropping them on "the wrong side of history," while you play the part of Galileo?

"The science is settled," the Al Gores of the world like to say, and it makes a nice sound bite. Except that last weekend's bombshell from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) should blow all such smug assurances out of the water. At the world's largest particle accelerator, located near Geneva, technicians have detected a sub-atomic particle (a neutrino) that travels faster than light-300,006 km per second, as opposed to 299,792 km per second. How can this be? Albert Einstein postulated that nothing can travel faster than light; light speed is the peg that his theory of special relativity hangs on. It's the c in E=mc2. Given that this neutrino does exist, is it possible to overturn Einstein?

Why not? Einstein overturned Newton, who built his theory of gravity on the belief that time and space were absolute. And Newton, with help from Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, overturned the Ptolemaic system. And "overturn" is an overstatement anyway.

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The discovery of an especially speedy little particle shakes up what is known as the Standard Model of physics, but the Standard Model has only been in existence for the last 50 years or so, and is always open to modification. Newtonian physics still works perfectly well on our own planet. Einsteinian physics has worked well for more than 100 years in space. Whatever comes next will create some significant cracks in the foundation, but that's happened before. After repairing the cracks, science will continue building.

"Einstein was wrong" makes a sexy news headline, but it probably wouldn't have surprised Einstein. As his younger contemporary Richard Feynman wrote, "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty-some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain."

Last week's news may turn out to be less sensational than billed. Although the scientists at CERN have been carefully checking their data for months, they've asked for confirmation from research labs in the United States and Japan. Confirmation may be elusive, but one thing science should have learned by now is that it is never settled.

Never at Rest is the title of Richard Westfall's definitive biography of Isaac Newton, drawn from the letters of Newton himself. It would serve as a good motto for modern science, and modern politics as well: Real rest is located elsewhere.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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