Neutrinos are faster than light, some weeks

It seems science fiction fans everywhere (the author of this article included) will have to put their dreams of joining Starfleet and hurtling through space with faster-than-light hyperdrives on hold once again.

Or will they?

Last September, it was reported by researchers out of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy that a collaborative experiment dubbed OPERA may have recorded particles travelling faster than the speed of light — an impossibility under Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than light.

In the original experiment, the researchers fired neutrino beams from CERN to Gran Sasso, 730 kilometres away, over a period of three years, and measured the length of time it took for them to arrive.

It was then recorded that the now-notorious neutrinos, travelling at over 300,000 kilometres per second, arrived at their destination 60 milliseconds faster than light would have been able to cover the distance — 60 milliseconds faster than generally believed to be physically possible for a particle, with or without mass.

Carefully avoiding impetuous interpretation of their data, the researchers published their findings on arXiv, an open-access database for research papers that have not yet gone through peer-review, in order to open the matter to public scrutiny.

Since that time, debate has raged between physics traditionalists and those hoping to witness such a revolutionary breakthrough — can matter travel faster than the speed of light?

Recently there has been some new activity on the matter:

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, it was reported in Science Magazine’s online blog, ScienceInsider, that the mystery behind the FTL neutrinos may have finally been solved, leaving neutrinos at comfortable, subluminal velocities.

According to the blog post, sources close to the experiment reported, “a bad connection between a fibre optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer.”

Tightening the loose cable and testing its new rate of data transfer had seemed to account for the 60 millisecond discrepancy in the original experiment.
In a post to the same website on Friday, Feb. 24th, CERN officials confirmed the error, but also threw a new wrench into the works.

On top of the loose optic cable, the researchers further reported the discovery of a second glitch in the system, this time involving an oscillator responsible for providing time stamps to the experimental readings in concert with GPS signals. It’s now believed that accounting for this second glitch would in fact cause the system to underestimate the neutrinos’ speed, giving them a velocity even faster than originally reported.

At this point we’re back where we were. Although most physicists are betting on the optical cable, for the moment, it is impossible to tell which glitch stands to win until new data is produced.

Both errors are scheduled to be accounted for in May, when the CERN/Gran Sasso partnership plans to conduct the measurements yet again, this time with far more precision than last.

In the meantime, one thing is for certain: this experiment, whether in technical error or not, has opened the door for a public discussion.

For the cover story of their March 2012 issue, notable popular science magazine, Discover, has printed an article covering the work of relativity radical Julian Barbour, and partner, Italian physicist, Bruno Bertotti. Working out of his farmhouse in South Newington, England, Barbour has endeavoured since the ’60s to completely rewrite the old theories of relativity — a controversial goal in the world of physics.

The article goes on to note that the pair have made several, somewhat quiet, scientific contributions since their partnership in 1975, including “a new theory of gravity that described the world just as accurately as Einstein’s general relativity but without invoking time as a fundamental dimension.”

Whether faster than light neutrinos exist in reality or in a technical glitch stands to be confirmed this May. Regardless of the result, it seems to be a good time to remember a very old axiom of science — some of the greatest discoveries of mankind have come of error and accident.

illustration by jeff kent

2 Comments on "Neutrinos are faster than light, some weeks"

  1. Jake Lamor | March 7, 2012 at 6:24 am |

    This is absolutely not a debate between “physics traditionalists and those hoping to witness such a revolutionary breakthrough”, that’s not how science works.

  2. G.R. Jacobs | March 9, 2012 at 2:34 pm |

    Actually, that’s exactly how Science works — more to the point, one of the more human aspects of knowledge-building that Scientific processes are designed to manage — but that’s an Opinion article for another day.

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