On the Importance of Being Nitpicky

Jennifer is blogging the American Physical Society April meeting in Dallas.Jennifer

I was reminded of the importance of being nitpicky in physics at a press conference yesterday on experimental attempts by Eric Adelberger’s group at the University of Washington to find violations in one of the most fundamental aspects of special relativity: Lorentz invariance. (For more specific detail about this experiment, and several others, go here.) That’s the bit about the laws of physics being the same for all observers, regardless of frame of reference. It’s something we all kind of take as a given these days, but before 1905, it was by no means accepted. Or even obvious. Physicists of prior eras firmly believed that light would show the effects of motion, but experiment after experiment failed to produce this result, with the final nail being driven in the coffin when Michelson and Morley (once again) failed to observe this prediction. But experiment after experiment has validated this particular aspect of special relativity.

So, if special relativity, as a theory, has already been confirmed, repeatedly, one might ask, why even bother to keep testing? The same question came up earlier this year with the announcement of the most precise experimental confirmation to date of another Einstein workhorse, E=mc<2>. To someone unversed in the scientific method — and they are legion, as evidenced by all those folks who think saying evolution is “just a theory” means it’s incorrect — it seems like a waste of time to keep testing something we already know is right.