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‘Science as a spectator sport’. So ran an editorial in the New Scientist last September when the story that neutrinos, tiny subatomic particles, had been found potentially travelling faster than the speed of light at an experiment conducted at CERN and Gran Sasso. The results have since had much doubt cast upon them by the scientific community, something reaffirmed by apparent errors found by the researchers that have suggested faulty results.
But that’s not important. It really doesn’t matter whether there particles actually broke the speed of light (though a fair few physicists might disagree with us on that point), what is more important was the reaction, both in the press and society.
This was a story of incredibly abstract science – something that if true might affect the fundamental understanding of the universe but really won’t affect how you behave when you pop down the shops for a pint of milk. Somehow, this story managed to capture the public’s imagination despite being almost entirely irrelevant to everyday life. This shows how there is a desire to know more about science, to see how scientists probe and examine the most basic of our assumptions about the universe we inhabit. Science might never be the same again, not because it has changed itself, but because the understanding of what it means and how it works has been improved. NB