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Superluminal Neutrino Result Caused by Faulty Connection?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A data transmission problem? (Wikipedia/BigRiz)

Although still awaiting full confirmation, a breaking news report in Science (and Nature, see below) indicates that the measurement of an apparently faster-than-light travel time for muon-neutrinos generated at CERN and detected at the Gran Sasso laboratory – which hit the world headlines back in September 2011 – may have been due to a problematic physical connection between a fiber-optic cable and an electronics card in a computer.

The rumor is that when this connection was tightened and the signal timing through the cable re-evaluated it matched precisely the 60 nano-second discrepancy that had been attributed to possible superluminal neutrino speeds. Since the cable fed data from a GPS unit used in timing the neutrino passage, this would be a critical problem. It is also possible that the GPS was providing incorrect timestamp information.

A more detailed report of the issues and the intentions of the OPERA collaboration are available at this Nature web site. And I quote here:

“The OPERA Collaboration, by continuing its campaign of verifications on the neutrino velocity measurement, has identified two issues that could significantly affect the reported result. The first one is linked to the oscillator used to produce the events time-stamps in between the GPS synchronizations. The second point is related to the connection of the optical fiber bringing the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock.

These two issues can modify the neutrino time of flight in opposite directions. While continuing our investigations, in order to unambiguously quantify the effect on the observed result, the Collaboration is looking forward to performing a new measurement of the neutrino velocity as soon as a new bunched beam will be available in 2012. An extensive report on the above mentioned verifications and results will be shortly made available to the scientific committees and agencies.”

We will have to wait and see if this is corroborated, but it suggests that any hopes of having spotted neutrinos skipping the light fantastic may have indeed been wishful thinking. Such is the nature of complex and extremely tricky physics experiments, a dodgy bit of wiring, or a piece of electronics slightly outside its design tolerance can make all the difference.




Caleb A. Scharf About the Author: Caleb Scharf is the director of Columbia University's multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. His books include Gravity's Engines (2012) and The Copernicus Complex (2014) (both from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Follow on Twitter @caleb_scharf.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. lnquiringConstructivist 8:48 am 02/23/2012

    ‘Tis a pity that Einstein wasn’t overturned. Another white European tossed in the dustbin of history would’ve been grand.

    Link to this
  2. 2. blackbird79 9:18 am 02/23/2012


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  3. 3. HowardB 10:23 am 02/23/2012

    How this rubbish science ever got to be splashed all over the world media is an indictment of science reporters everywhere.

    Link to this
  4. 4. caleb_scharf 11:02 am 02/23/2012

    I would disagree that this was/is ‘rubbish science’. This was a puzzling but intriguing result presented by highly respectable and careful physicists who were being extremely forthright about their experiment. While most people may have thought from the outset that there was probably a mundane explanation it was (I think) still a very good thing that it got such a lot of coverage. Science *is* like this, whether we want to tidy or polish it, a lot is messy, often wrong, and provocative. The history of scientific advancement is littered with enthusiastically discussed ideas and discoveries that later turned out to be in error, it’s all part of the process.

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 2:46 pm 02/23/2012

    Good work – yours appears to be a promising path back to reality. Thanks!

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  6. 6. Postman1 11:28 pm 02/24/2012

    We learned two things with this:
    1) How good scientists conduct experiments (test, observe, retest, observe, announce findings and get others to test, observe, etc..)
    2) A LOT of people are interested in anything that has to do with possible FTL, no matter how slim the possibility. Our Hope-meters jumped, even though we all suspected it would be proven wrong.
    Maybe next time!

    Link to this
  7. 7. davidaghosh 4:54 am 02/25/2012

    The facts and finding of particles tarvelling faster than light in CERN and Gran SASSO is a real jock.
    Bravo, a new scientific jock after all.
    I believe, it is not so easy to find Holy Grail the act of God.

    David Ghosh

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