I make my living as a statistician and also have a background in optical physics, so I have been on both sides of the experimental design and analysis table. I have also been on both sides of debates about the quality and reliability of data from an experiment. So where am I going with this?
Do you remember last fall when we heard about the discovery and subsequent ‘proof’ of faster-than-light neutrinos? Here are some details:
New high-precision tests carried out by the OPERA collaboration in Italy broadly confirm its claim, made in September, to have detected neutrinos travelling at faster than the speed of light. The collaboration today submitted its results to a journal, but some members continue to insist that further checks are needed before the result can be considered sound.
Well … just like the embarrassed customer help cliche asking ‘is it plugged in?’ the researchers behind the ‘faster than light’ findings are now facing the same criticism – that their revolutionary results are simply the impact of a bad cable connection in a circuit responsible for timing calibration.
Here is the new evidence that undoes the original research:
According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos.
And so based on the failure to check and recheck the experimental setup and then to question the unexpected findings, the researchers find themselves with egg on their face as they have to deal with the loss of any credibility to their findings.
As Dan said recently ‘measure twice, cut once’ … these guys failed to check their measurements, and they now left with an embarrassing mess of ‘Kent’ proportions.