Science is at Its Best When an Experiment Fails

by | Aug 8, 2016

Scientific Method

The scientific method instructs us that success is transient.

Only through demonstration of the “null” – in other words, failure – does scientific knowledge progress.

This principle was demonstrated this week at the 38th International Conference of High Energy Physics in Chicago1.

There, physicists’ hopes of discovering a new sub-atomic particle were squashed by new data.

Standard Model of Particle Physics

In January2, scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland reported evidence of new sub-atomic particle. A new particle would force scientists to rethink the “Standard Model”, a theory which has withstood 40 years of testing culminating in the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012.

The Higgs Boson was the last of the tiny sub-atomic particles defined by the Standard Model.

A new particle would have sent particle-smashing physicist into a frenzy of new calculations and experiments.

Applying the Scientific Method

But like all good scientists, the particle physicists tried to reproduce their results, which in scientific jargon serves as the equivalent of the sports announcer saying, “upon further review”.

The physicists repeated the experiment four more times and to their disappointment and also unanticipated discovery, they discovered that what they thought was a new particle, was actually small fluctuations within a statistically defined field3.

So, instead of saying, “sorry, better luck next time.” We should all celebrate their failure; we now know to look someplace else for more particles and further test the Standard Model.

    2. Science  18 Mar 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6279, pp. 1248-1249
    4. Photo Credit: Particle Collision in LHC (Large Hadron Collider) Copyright: generalfmv / 123RF Stock Photo

For more articles on how science works and the scientific method read: How Science Works and How the Press Thinks Science Works

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