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This week’s news that researchers at Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland are publishing their results “so other scientists can determine if the approach contains any mistakes” represents a huge leap forward for Open Science.
SCIENCE UNDER WRAPS
The science community is traditionally a “closed” community, probably at the insistence of the large pharmaceutical organizations who insist on this as a method of protecting the intellectual property rights on any research they fund. While there have been moves within the science community to share research online as a means of “crowdsourcing” the work and speeding up discovery, science seems to be way behind other disciplines in actually getting the information out there.
While it makes perfect sense to many researchers to open up research projects for collaboration, the companies that sponsor and fund research laboratories worldwide are keen to keep the lid on research results and new developments due to the immense amounts of money to be made from new drugs, medical procedures and technological/industrial applications.
CERN – A BACKGROUND
Cern is an international organization in Geneva which is the world’s foremost particle physics laboratory, providing particle accelerators and other infrastructure for high-energy physics research. Although the Centre straddles the French/Swiss border, it is not under sole jurisdiction of the French or the Swiss and has twenty European member states. Founded in 1954, some of its achievements include:
• The discovery of neutral currents in the Gargamelle bubble chamber in 1973
• The discovery of W and Z bosons in the UA1 and UA2 experiments in 1983
• The first creation of antihydrogen atoms in the PS210 experiment in 1995
• The isolation of 38 atoms of anti-hydrogen in 2010
The World Wide Web began life as a CERN project initiated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and Cern has recently become a centre for the development of grid computing, combining computer resources from multiple administrative domains to reach a common goal.
LARGE HADRON COLLIDER
The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is the largest particle accelerator in the world and was built in order to test predictions of high-energy physics, including the existence of the Higgs boson hypothesis. The Collider was built with the collaboration of more than ten thousand scientists and engineers from over a hundred countries. Following the successful circulation in the main ring of the Collider of proton beams in 2008, operations were stopped due to a fault that resulted in the leakage of six tonnes of liquid helium which resulted in an explosion that contaminated the proton tubes of the Collider.
During this time, the Large Hadron Collider attracted a great deal of attention from outside the scientific community and led to an abundance of popular programmes, novels and video games. The way in which CERN was portrayed in the popular media led to the organization publishing a “Fact or Fiction?” page on its website in order to address this situation. In fact, when the Large Hadron Collider was used for the first time, there were public fears that the particle collisions could lead to a doomsday scenario and cause the end of the world!
OPEN SCIENCE PIONEER?
With a history of collaboration between scientists and engineers and funding from so many nations, CERN could be considered one of the pioneers of Open Science. It’s maybe not so surprising that researchers at CERN are publishing the results of their work online and inviting other scientists to look for any mistakes. The experiment, known as the OPERA neutrino experiment, measured the velocity of neutrinos from the CERN CNGS beam with much higher accuracy than previous studies that had been conducted with accelerator neutrinos.
Results suggest that subatomic particles travelled at faster than the speed of light, which until now was thought to be the highest speed possible in the Universe. If this is the case, Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity could be turned on its head. This Theory has a range of consequences and also introduces the space-time interval.
In the course of the experiments, during which muon neutrinos were sent through the earth to an underground lab at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up there as tau neutrinos, researchers noticed that the particles were consistently arriving up to 60 billionths of a second earlier than if they had been travelling at the speed of light. Although this change is tiny and fractional, it was happening consistently. This would be deemed as a “formal discovery” in scientific circles, but the team is aware that systematic errors could lead to erroneous results – a possibility that has led to them publishing their measurements online.
Antonio Ereditato, spokesperson for OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), told the BBC that recent findings could lead to a “potentially great impact on physics.” After looking at all possible explanations for the results of the experiment he said, “We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t.”
Failure to find any mistake has led to the research team opening up the findings to the global scientific community for scrutiny in the hope that other scientists may find inconsistencies in measurements, leading to repetition of the experiment elsewhere.
SCIENCE COMMUNITY BUZZ
Understandably, these developments have caused a huge buzz in the science community across the globe – if the findings are proven to be accurate, modern physics and the fundamental laws of nature will need to be rethought. The Theory of Special Relativity led to the theory that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.
Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous physicist, has expressed doubts, but said that commenting on this would be premature, stating that “Further experiments and clarifications are needed.” This means that the research team at Cern is perfectly right to be so cautious in the interpretation of the findings. One British physicist, Jim Al-Khalili from the University of Surrey, is so convinced that the findings must be due to a simple error in measurement that he was quoted as saying “if the Cern experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts live on TV.”
Whatever the outcome of the current situation, this has put physics back on the front pages and, more importantly, is encouraging the science community in opening up and collaborating in a way that has proved difficult in the past. Crowdsourcing science in this way will lead to more openness within science which will result in benefits to mankind in the future.
Debbie Todd is a freelance writer/editor for Innovation Investment Journal and is based in Wales, U.K. Debbie writes and blogs about the latest trends and news affecting innovation investment.