How Could the #1 Story of the Year Be Something That Might Not Even Be True?

By Corey S. Powell | January 9, 2012 3:12 pm

In the 2011 edition of our annual Top 100 Stories of the Year issue, DISCOVER chose the OPERA experiment’s announcement of neutrinos that apparently move faster than light as the #1 story. This raises the question of whether the top spot should go to a “discovery” that many researchers think is wrong.

After much heated debate, we landed on not one but two answers. First, there is the extraordinary nature of the experiment itself. Shooting shadowy neutrinos through 454 miles of rock and then collecting and precisely measuring them at the other end is a historic technical achievement, one that may turn up new physics even if this particular result does not hold up. Second, and more important, there is the inspiring nature of the claim. This is the most credible evidence in years that our basic understanding of space and time needs an overhaul. No physicist believes that relativity has all the answers and that humans now understand everything there is to know about how the universe works. Someday some experiment will lead to insights that eluded even Einstein. If the neutrino experiment does not achieve that, it certainly points the way.

See our gallery of all top 100 stories of the year here.

Also see the top 100 lists from previous years:

Top 5:
Worst Oil Spill of All-Time, and a Future Full of Oil
First Synthetic Organism Created
E.O. Wilson’s Theory of Altruism Shakes Up Understanding of Evolution
Climate Science Wins a Round, But the Campaign Goes Poorly
Family Genomics Links DNA to Disease

Top 5:
Vaccine Phobia Becomes a Public-Health Threat
NASA Braces for Course Correction
Meet Ardi, Your First Human Ancestor
Stem Cell Science Takes Off
Hot on the Trail of the First Galaxies

Top 5:
The Post-Oil Era Begins
The LHC Begins Its Search for the “God Particle”
The FDA Tackles Tainted Drugs From China
Slime Is Turning the Seas Into Dead Zones
Nations Stake Their Claims to a Melting Arctic

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Top Posts

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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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