x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Career-killing particle

Neutrinos are too tiny to see, but they are big enough to bump off two leading experts in subatomic physics.

Neutrinos are speedy by any measure, but these uncharged subatomic particles hardly seem large enough to be fatal. But neutrinos have knocked off two top men in the physics research group known as Opera.

Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and Dario Autiero of the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Lyon, France, stepped down this weekend.

The two professors were key figures in the research report, published last September, that suggested neutrinos had been detected travelling faster than the speed of light, a theoretical impossibility. Re-testing has since disproved the finding. Fundamental theory thus remains intact.

But the careers of the two scholars do not, and both men cited tensions within the Opera experimental group as the reason for resigning.

This seems odd, because a surprising first experimental result, and the inability to repeat it, are both standard elements of the scientific method. Nobody did anything wrong, in other words.

But perhaps it's not so odd. Scientists are human, after all, and political squabbles within academia, professors like to say, are notoriously vicious precisely because the stakes are so low.

Never mind neutrinos. Few things anywhere move as fast as a knife going into the back of a faltering rival.