Last Friday, scientists at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – shocked the scientific community by publishing evidence of an anomaly they were unable to solve, in hopes that others around the world can either prove or disprove their findings. While sending subatomic particles hurdling through the Earth between Switzerland and Italy, researchers noticed that a particular particle known as a neutrino was sometimes arriving a little bit faster at the destination than everything else. What makes that so strange is that these particles were being sent at the speed of light.
If neutrinos were indeed observed to be doing this, then Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which establishes a cosmic speed limit of 186,000 miles per second (the speed of light), is not entirely accurate. But according to the media, Einstein’s status as the most important mind in human history is on the chopping block, summed up by many headlines referencing the possibility that the German-born Nobel Prize winner was ‘wrong.’
However in scientific research, ‘wrong’ is a bit of a gray area. This is especially the case when we’re talking about huge leaps forward, especially in terms of theories. Those who first read about the CERN announcement last week while glancing at their 4G Android Phone Samsung Exhibit news feed or other easy-to-digest news source turned their attention away with contemplations that Einstein was possibly some sort of crackpot that humans put baseless trust in for more than a century. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The truth is that, just like time, ‘wrong’ is a relative concept as well. This idea is of course borrowed from famed scientist and science fiction author Issac Asimov, who in 1988 penned an interesting essay defending his beliefs against those of an unnamed English professor who accused the scientific community of faithlessly trusting rules and laws that end up being debunked sometime in the future. The jaded antagonist of his essay insists that science is a charade due to ever-changing ideas. Yet Asimov argues that there are degrees of wrongness, and that being close to right and still wrong is very different from simply being wrong.
So those who question Einstein’s rightness and wonder how wrong he’ll end up being need to remember that wrong is relative. Einstein’s special theory of relativity has held up for over a century because every single scientist, researcher, and amateur thinker has applied his theory to their own observations and have noticed it is fundamentally and without a doubt the truth.
But is it the whole truth? That’s what those at CERN are busy trying to figure out. It’s also how the public at large ought to be looking at the issue. Einstein may or may not be completely right. He might be kind of wrong. In science, such is a fact of life. In the media, however, truth is relative to the ratings.