Most people would chose success over failure any day, but George Benedetti’s physics students learned a valuable lesson last Tuesday, that failure is an anticipated part of the scientific experimental process.
“It’s a perfectly normal thing to make errors in research … That’s how it works, trial and error,” Professor Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, told the local students via a half hour video conference. A team of CERN scientists recently made a whopper of an error involving Albert Einstein’s special Theory of Relativity which has withstood the test of time since 1905, providing the underpinnings for much of modern physics, Benedetti said.
“Incredibly, they repeated the experiment and got the same results! This contradicted the previous foundation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity,” Benedetti said.
“What CERN thought they discovered could have changed modern physics as we know it,” said Brooke Phalen, 18, one of about 60 Foran physics students who were able to hear De Rujula speak via Skype from his office in Switzerland for about a half hour Tuesday. De Rujula answered questions about the failed experiment and the scientific methods they used, which mistakenly led the team to claim that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos traveled more quickly than the speed of light.
“Nothing could travel faster than the speed of light,” said Max Bierenbaum, 17.
Mallory Marin, 17, said the Milford students read about the initial experiment and the scientific team’s eventual retraction in New York Time’s articles. “We had just started a new chapter in physics that was about the speed of light,” she said.
Kevin Vargas, 18, said it began as a homework assignment that became a research project and then an outreach initiative to the CERN scientists. “We planned this out for two weeks coming up with questions to try to understand what went wrong in the experiment,” Vargas said.
Tian Zhou, 18, said the students didn’t expect to hear back from such prestigious scientists. “It was surprisingly easy to contact this major international research institution. We were a little surprised that CERN responded to us and they were happy to answer our questions,” Zhou said.
“This was obviously too much to believe … The Theory of Relativity is so well tested and so consistent,” de Rujula told the Foran students.
“The kids really grabbed on to this … They are eager to better understand real world science … Some of what they questioned and discussed included what was wrong with the experimental design, why did peer review not detect potential flaws, and did they adhere to the scientific method in the original experiment?,” Benedetti said.
“It’s really cool. It’s not like any other class we’ve taken,” said Marin, who marveled at the use of social media technology to augment classroom work. “It’s not just book work. We’re learning and applying it to real life experiences,” she said.
“Aside from expanding my knowledge it inspired me to reach for my dreams,” Phalen said.
According to Benedetti, Foran was informed by CERN that “we were the only high school to have contacted them about the matter.”
Students recorded their interview of de Rujula and plan to disseminate it to other physics classrooms throughout the country through the American Association of Physics Teachers.