Leaders Of The Neutrino Experiment Step Down

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The two public faces of the OPERA collaboration, the experiment that seemed to show neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light last Fall, have stepped down, reportedly over disagreements from the team on how they handled the media. Here's euronews.

"An Italian professor who thought he'd disproved Einstein's theory of relativity has resigned after it turned out he hadn't. Antonio Ereditato appeared to challenge one of the fundamentals of modern physics..."

But wait, is that really how it played out? Ereditato's colleague Dario Autiero, who presented the neutrino results at CERN, also stepped down on Friday, telling Nature the researchers never said they'd disproved Einstein.

"Despite the fact that OPERA itself never claimed to overturn Einstein's theory, keeping its claims narrowly to the report of an anomalous measurement, many newspapers depicted it that way. 'They played with the sensationalism of the story...'"

Although technical issues now seem to have been the cause of the speedy neutrino results, last Fall, the physics world exploded, trying to make sense of their results. Ereditato and Autiero say physicists' excitement was unfairly translated into "Einstein was wrong" headlines. Video from CERN at the time shows they were more cautious than reported.

Autiero: "We are just presenting today our result as experimentalists."
Ereditato: "We would like just to say that we made a measurement, this measurement is accurate, and therefore we would leave it to the entire community."

But critics say the results should have been kept secret until they were vetted. Another member of OPERA told Physics World the real reason Ereditato stepped down was because he allowed the results so much publicity, he lost the trust of many on his team, narrowly avoiding a no-confidence vote this week.

"The reason for the lack of confidence ... was that many in the collaboration felt that Ereditato had failed to be sufficiently cautious when discussing the ... results, having failed to make it clear that these were preliminary. ... 'In front of the media, we had a duty to be more careful with our language.'"

But others defended the decision to go forward with the results. A writer for Science 2.0 says it would have been impossible to keep the findings from leaking, anyway, and muzzling scientists isn't the way to go.

"Let us instead try to educate the public on the fact that what happened to Opera's ... claim is good science: we study an effect, find something unexpected, and then try to kill the effect with all our means by studying it in more detail and with all the other tools we have available. What survives this kind of treatment is usually only real, trustable effects."

And the Sydney Morning Herald quotes another OPERA collaborator saying the neutrino results actually did turn out to be a teachable moment.

"...the neutrino affair had produced a wonderful discussion and a great lesson in how science was done. The whole world was watching; the editors of great newspapers were waking up thinking about subatomic particles."

Both OPERA and its sister experiment, ICARUS, are scheduled to re-run the neutrino experiment at the end of this month, though most experts expect the particles to obey the speed limit this time.

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