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Could GPS Problems Explain Seemingly Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos?

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OPERA apparatus. Credit: CERN

One of the biggest stories in science last year was the announcement by a European physics collaboration that neutrinos can seemingly travel faster than light. Most physicists were skeptical of the result, which would upend a well-tested tenet of modern physics—namely, that nothing outpaces light. And the researchers on the OPERA experiment that made the measurement were themselves very cautious, stating only that they had found a discrepancy that they could not get rid of.

Today reports emerged that problems with GPS synchronization could explain away the anomalous neutrino velocities, although specific details have yet to be confirmed. ScienceInsider’s Edwin Cartlidge reported that a “bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame” but cited only anonymous “sources familiar with the experiment.”

The Associated Press got an official if unspecific confirmation from CERN spokesperson James Gillies that “a problem in the GPS system used to time the arrival of neutrino particles was discovered earlier in February.” CERN is the Geneva laboratory for particle physics where the neutrino beam originates; OPERA detects the particles hundreds of kilometers away, in a lab buried in an Italian mountainside, and clocks their velocity on the journey.

Now MSNBC’s Alan Boyle reports that two potential issues have been identified:

One has to do with a fiber-optic connector that sends a GPS time stamp to the experiment’s master clock. That connector may not have been functioning correctly when the neutrino-timing measurements were made, and as a result, the recorded flight time would be shorter than the actual time. That alone could explain the seemingly faster-than-light results.

Another potential problem has to do with the oscillator that was used to generate the time stamps for GPS synchronization. This problem could have made the flight time look longer than it really was.

Boyle’s sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak yet on the subject. OPERA, he reports, will issue an official statement on Thursday about the new information. That means that we should know more soon, although it may take some time before physicists can test the effects of any potential glitches.

UPDATE (6:35 P.M.): Nature News is reporting that an official statement from OPERA confirms that two possible GPS-related problems are being investigated.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

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

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  1. 1. Richard_Gillespie 8:37 am 02/23/2012

    This was reported months ago. I believe that the tenant you speak of is a logical fallacy. I am very happy that Major General Bolden(ret.) from NASA was courteous enough to respond and forward my hypothesis that saying nothing can travel faster than the speed of light is based on a logical fallacy to two leading NASA scientists. Minkowski space time is far different than Galileo space time. Yet using Lorentz transformations to state a static frame could exist that has no forward time progression and something could literally pass its starting point before it left it is wrong. Lorentz introduced relativistic mass. It is now out of favor. And some have even said Einstein stopped using it. examples, debate and links are on my blog As soon as CERN goes back online at a higher power output there will be no option but to believe me. And before you think I am knocking Einstein please note I am not, just your understanding of what he stated and what is or is not possible.

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  2. 2. m 9:56 am 02/23/2012

    Saying something and actually naming something are different. You do not name therefore your whole argument is moot.

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  3. 3. m 10:00 am 02/23/2012

    Also mathematics is a very crude way of understanding the universe in averages. Averages do not a universe make.

    How fast are you travelling…that is an average, where are you going…that is an average, what time will you get there…this is an average.

    While things may yet be found to go faster than light, nothing with a mass can(within space-time). Neutrinos have mass therefore are not apart of the argument. You have to take the mass out of space-time to enjoy faster than light travel.

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  4. 4. hungry doggy 3:49 pm 02/23/2012

    All this pontificating and all the fancy theories and it turns out to be a bad fiber optic connector!!!!!!!!!!!! What’s wrong with these idiots?

    Why is skepticism in modern science a dirty word?

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  5. 5. markorman 5:07 pm 02/24/2012

    Regarding the comment that nothing with mass can move faster than the speed of light, while that is true classically, it need not be true quantum mechanically, particularly within the contest of the Uncertainty Principal. Lawrence Krauss in his new book A Universe From Nothing discusses an argument due to Feynman that explains why relativity and quantum mechanics together require the existence of antiparticles. Over very short times, the Uncertainty Principal allows a particle such as an electron to have large energy and velocity fluctuations, where the latter can exceed light speed. Applying a Lorenz transformation shows that such electrons would then move backwards in time during this short interval, equivalent to a positron moving forward in time. While this argues that empty space (vacuum) supports spontaneous particle-antiparticle creation, crucial to modern field theories, it does not support neutrinos or any other particles traveling faster then light outside the constraints of the Uncertainty Principle.

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  6. 6. PeterT 6:08 pm 02/24/2012

    This is NOT a GPS problem!! It is a problem with people mis-interpreting and mis-using information gleaned from the GPS Satellites. GPS Satellites transmit the TRUTH!!


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  7. 7. Thim 10:56 pm 02/24/2012

    CERN has realized that special relativity is a contradicting theory. Faster than light neutrinos and other particles cannot exist as there is no force available to accelerate particles beyond the speed of light. But Einstein’s theory is not applicable to the real world, which is well known for long time. My IEEE
    article “Absence of the relativistic transverse Dopplershift” Ocober 2003, IEEE-Transactions on Instrumentation and Measurement has reportet a relativity refuting experiment carried out at 33GHz. And the well known twin paradoxon points at the contradicting effects relativity theory is prognosticating (a moving twin is aging at a slower rate than his twin brother, each twin sees the other twin being younger!=nonsense). This theory must be given up and CERN has realized that. We tax payers appreciate that. This is a useful result much better than measuring Higgs Bosons which do not exist in our Universe predicted by the Standard model which is also wrong. Period.

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  8. 8. larryreibstein 12:07 am 02/25/2012

    to 3.m

    so if we mitigated or eliminated the Higgs, how much faster than light would you suppose an object could travel then?

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  9. 9. Quinn the Eskimo 5:07 pm 02/26/2012

    Maybe, just maybe, we don’t know every damn thing, yet.

    At one time it was believed that you couldn’t drive a car 60 miles per hour, the wind would suck the breath out of your lungs. So much for that scientific theory.

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  10. 10. Quinn the Eskimo 5:10 pm 02/26/2012

    Also, at Mr. Gillespie; “something could literally pass its starting point before it left it is wrong.”

    Well, the new Ferrari can. 780 horse power.

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  11. 11. Steve D 10:06 am 02/27/2012

    This is so obviously a measurement problem that it’s amazing it has gotten any press at all. I simply don’t believe the production and detection of neutrinos can be timed to the nanosecond level. The production has to be inferred from the time the beam hits the target and the reception has to be inferred from reactions at the destination, and I see potential time errors at both ends bigger than the alleged discrepancy in travel time.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 7:12 pm 03/8/2012

    The fundamental problem with these experiments is that no matter how accurately they might measure the relative emission and detection times of detected neutrinos, the distance traversed cannot be definitively or precisely determined. As a result, any speed assessment is at best an estimate.

    While the experiments presume a linear distance between GPS coordinates of CERN and Gran Sasso, as determined by standard geodesy routines, there is ample reason to expect that the undetected actual path traversed by neutrinos is subject to relativistic effects that have not been accounted for. Please see: Wolfgang Kundt, (2011). “Speed of the CERN Neutrinos released on 22.9.2011 – Was stated superluminality due to neglecting General Relativity?”,

    The estimated discrepancy of 61 ns between the calculated speed of light in a vacuum over the estimated 731,278+/-0.2 meters and the now reasonably measured neutrino ‘time-of-flight’ is equivalent to a distance discrepancy of 18 meters. If, for any reason, the distance traversed by neutrinos was overestimated by about 18 meters then the detected neutrinos DID NOT exceed the speed of light.

    IMO, If we were to set up a massive neutrino detector facility on the moon (accounting for a much larger dispersion angle) perhaps we could obtain reliably conclusive timing results for detected neutrinos, since the precise distance to the moon can be experimentally confirmed through laser reflection. In that case, the path taken by neutrinos would be more likely the same as photons over the greater linear distance.

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