Intelligent Energy

Light gets rematch vs neutrinos as CERN declares technical glitch

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Einstein may be safe after all. Or maybe not. CERN discovers two possible mistakes in earlier findings that neutrinos shattered relativity by outracing light. Sets new test for May.

Green with envy: Light will get a chance to knock neutrinos out of the speed spotlight, when CERN reruns experiments in May. Photo from NASA.

When Geneva physics lab CERN made the Einstein-defying announcement last September that neutrinos had apparently traveled faster than light, people scoffed that there must have been problems with the measuring equipment. Everyone knows nothing travels faster than light - Professor E said so a century ago in his special theory of relativity.

Looks like the critics were right. The carpenter blamed his tools today, as CERN announced that it  had found two possible measurement mistakes which make the earlier results unreliable. One of the errors could have favored neutrinos, and the other - worryingly for Einstein diehards - light. CERN plans a May do-over.

Worried? Albert Einstein would not have given the stamp of approval to neutrinos. At least not in 1905. Neutrinos weren't even postulated until 1930. Image from Wikipedia.

A possibly faulty oscillator that provided time stamps for GPS synchronization might have made the neutrinos look faster than they actually were, CERN said in a brief statement from its OPERA group, which is the unit conducting the neutrino experiments. Conversely, a second possible error in a fiber connector might have slowed down the apparent speed of the neutrinos. In that case, the neutrinos would have outraced light by a wider margin than what CERN recorded.

The second error "concerns the optical fiber connector that brings the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock, which may not have been functioning correctly when the measurements were taken," CERN stated. "If this were the case, it could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos."

In the September results, repeated in a November experiment, neutrinos beat light by 60 nanoseconds in a 455-mile underground race from CERN's Geneva lab to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory near Rome.

The original discovery was serendipity - CERN and Gran Sasso were collaborating to see how many neutrinos would change physical states. Neutrinos are shadowy subatomic particles that tunnel through earth unobstructed. The research team measured the particles' arrival time against the speed of light (they did not actually send light on the same journey). The neutrinos' gold-medal burst gave the researchers the surprise of a scientific lifetime.

CERN was so startled by the results that it appealed to the scientific community to find possible flaws and explanations. Plenty followed.

British physicist Brian Cox postulated - only as a possibility - that the neutrinos could have taken a short cut through an unknown dimension. Many people including Frank Close, Oxford University theoretical physics professor and neutrino expert, blamed measuring equipment.

"The only thing that travels faster than light is a rumor," Close said in The Guardian newspaper after the news first broke, repeating an old physics joke.

CERN will attempt to settle things this May, with new measurements. If Einstein does tumble, it would shake the foundation of modern physics. It could even lead to time travel.

Forget London 2012 and Usain Bolt. I'm going to see if I can get tickets for a 455-mile Switzerland-to-Italy sprint.

NOTE: It's been a riveting few months for CERN,  with the neutrino contest and, separately, the search for the elusive "God particle" known as the Higgs boson. Tune in tomorrow (Friday) for a SmartPlanet update on Higgs.

The long tale of a short race, on SmartPlanet:

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure