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Enemies of Science Can Stop Gloating About the Fast Neutrinos

It’s amazing to see the anti-science spins some people attached to the headlines last fall that physicists had observed faster-than-light travel. The alleged speed limit violators were invisible particles called neutrinos that CERN physicists sent in a beam 646 miles through the ground. The particles appeared to travel that distance 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light.

Neutrinos are a very hard-to-observe form of matter, first postulated by Enrico Fermi in the 1930s to explain why a small amount of mass seemed to be carried away from nuclear reactions. The first neutrinos were detected in the 1950s.

They’re generated in the sun and other stars in enormous quantities - 100 billion neutrinos zoom through a spot the size of your thumbnail every second. At night, they stream through the Earth and come out the other side. They’re not only invisible but they tend to pass through matter without leaving a sign.

Some commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, reported that physicists were upset, even devastated by this result and reluctant to accept the idea because it violated special relativity and they revere Einstein.

This is hardly the case. Scientists were skeptical because it was a single, unconfirmed result that involved complicated equipment and indirect measurements. Indeed, the latest press release from CERN suggests some mechanical glitches that might have fooled the physicists into thinking they’d detected faster-than-light travel. A mistake is what most physicists suspected all along:

The OPERA collaboration has informed its funding agencies and host laboratories that it has identified two possible effects that could have an influence on its neutrino timing measurement. These both require further tests with a short pulsed beam. If confirmed, one would increase the size of the measured effect, the other would diminish it. The first possible effect concerns an oscillator used to provide the time stamps for GPS synchronizations. It could have led to an overestimate of the neutrino's time of flight. The second concerns the optical fibre connector that brings the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock, which may not have been functioning correctly when the measurements were taken. If this is the case, it could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos. The potential extent of these two effects is being studied by the OPERA collaboration. New measurements with short pulsed beams are scheduled for May.

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TAGGED: PHYSICS, SCIENCE


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