News from CERN last week that E may not, in fact, equal mc2 was earth shattering. As the news broke, physicists everywhere quivered in the knowledge that everything they once thought true may no longer hold and the debate that continues to encircle the announcement this week is fascinating. Commentary ranges from those excited by the ongoing uncertainties of the modern world to those who are adamant mistakes have been made.
This comment from Matt Alden-Farrow on the BBC sums up the situation nicely:
“This discovery could one day change our understanding of the universe and the way in which things work. Doesn’t mean previous scientists were wrong; all science is built on the foundation of others work.”
From our perspective, this comment not only sums up the debate, but also the reality of the situation. Scientific discoveries are always built on the findings of those that went before and the ability to advance knowledge often depends on the tools available.
Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity when an Apple fell on his head – the sophisticated technology we rely on today just didn’t exist. His ‘technology’ was logic. Einstein used chemicals and mathematical formulae which had been discovered and proven. CERN used the large hadron collider and high performance computing.
The reality is that scientific knowledge is built in baby steps, and the time these take is often determined by the time it takes for the available technology to catch up with the existing level of knowledge. If we had never known Einstein’s theory of relativity, who’s to say that CERN would have even attempted to measure the speed of particle movement?
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