05 October 2011

Humility and Science

I was intrigued (as people from all scientific disciplines were, I imagine) when scientists announced last week that neutrinos had traveled from CERN to Gran Sasso faster than the speed of light. I'm skeptical of the result, and look forward to seeing the physics community scrutinize the results. What struck me even more, however, is the humble way in which the authors presented their results.

Many scientists discover something (apparently) groundbreaking and hold press conferences declaring that they've rewritten the rules (c.f. the Arsenic Life debacle), and start reading up on the protocol of how to address the King of Sweden (especially at this time of year). By contrast, Ereditato and colleagues readily admit that this result could be caused by an undiscovered error in their analysis. "We wanted to find a mistake - trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects - and we didn't. When you don't find anything, then you say 'well, now I'm forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this'."

I just found it so refreshing to hear from someone with a remarkable result who didn't immediately think they were the greatest scientist in the world. A lesson all practicing scientists should take to heart:

"we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result - because it is crazy"

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