Intelligent Energy

Neutrinos outrace light again

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The score after the second round - Neutrinos 2, Light 0. CERN scientists get the same baffling, Einstein-busting result in their faster-than-light do-over.

CERN's Globe of Science and Innovation is currently lighting up with Einstein-defying findings.

CERN scientists announced this morning that neutrinos once again traveled faster than light, after the Swiss physics lab modified an earlier experiment that produced the startling results.

CERN sent the subatomic particles racing under the Alps to the Gran Sasso Laboratory 455 miles away in Italy, where they arrived faster than the speed of light by 60 nanoseconds.

The result was the same as a serendipitous finding in September, when CERN was working with neutrinos for other reasons and discovered that they had outpaced light. That threatens Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which says that nothing travels faster than does light in a vacuum.

Shooting down the rules: This neutrino gun at CERN could have the basic laws of physics in its crosshairs.

Much of modern physics relies on Einstein’s theory, so CERN has been searching for errors that would disprove its original finding and thus keep Einstein and modern physics safe.

But the do-over yielded the same shocking result.

“The new measurements do not change the initial conclusion,” CERN said in a press release.

CERN still stopped short of proclaiming a firm upset of the laws of physics.

“The observed anomaly (that’s CERN’s scientific euphemism for ‘mind-blowing result’) in the neutrinos' time of flight from CERN to Gran Sasso still needs further scrutiny and independent measurement before it can be refuted or confirmed,” it stated.

Some critics have suggested that the original measurements suffered from inaccuracy in measuring equipment, but CERN said the second test “confirms the accuracy” of the first measurements.

Neutrinos can travel unimpeded through earth, which is how they ploughed under the Alps.

In the first experiment, CERN was watching to see how many neutrinos would flip from a “muon” state to “tau.”

In the second experiment, the team tailored the process to specifically examine speed. It used shorter pulses of neutrino beams, allowing it to more accurately pinpoint departure and arrival times. The first experiment used longer beams and involved more averaging.

Don’t sell short Einstein yet, but watch this space.

Photos: Top, Maximilien Brice/CERN. Bottom: Patrice Loiez/CERN

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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