Einstein vindicated? Neutrinos probably not faster than light.

Researchers last year thought they witnessed neutrinos traveling faster than light – overturning a fundamental tenet of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity. Now, they're not so sure.

CERN/AP
In this 2005 photo provided by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, technicians check the magnets that will direct protons towards the target for the CERN Neutrinos to Gran Sasso (CNGS) project in Geneva.

Neutrinos flitting through Earth faster than the speed of light? Not so fast.

A bum connection may have led to the stunning results from a physics experiment that showed subatomic particles called neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light.

Researchers associated with the experiment, called OPERA, unveiled its initial results last September, along with a plea for other teams to see if they could independently verify the finding or hunt for glitches the OPERA team might have missed when it scrutinized the extraordinary results.

If the neutrinos did travel faster than light, the results would overturn a fundamental tenet of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, in which the speed of light in a vacuum is the ultimate speed limit for matter and energy.

The OPERA experiment is designed to study neutrinos – particles that carry no electrical charge and so rarely interact with matter. The particles are produced in nuclear reactions and during radioactive decay. A sophisticated neutrino detector, which sits inside a mountain in central Italy, records the arrival of pulsed beams of neutrinos generated in a particle accelerator at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), some 450 miles away.

In the brief announcement released this morning, the OPERA team noted that one possible glitch involved a bad connection along a fiber-optic line that feeds timing signals from GPS satellites to the ultimate stopwatch – the OPERA experiment's master clock. The master clock anchors the system that times the neutrinos' sprint from CERN to the underground lab at Gran Sasso.

Last fall's results had neutrinos showing up in Italy 60.7 billionths of a second faster than they would have appeared had they traveled at the speed of light. The connection problem could have led the clock to record a shorter travel time than the neutrinos in reality took, the team acknowledges.

Yet the researchers note another problem – a malfunction in an oscillator critical to keeping times synchronized – that could have led them to underestimate the neutrinos' speed.

The team has scheduled a new set of experiments set for May.

Although a good deal of skepticism remains over the initial results, it's not the first team to suggest the possibility that turbocharged neutrinos may exist.

Five years ago, researchers at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., posted results indicating they'd found neutrinos traveling faster than light. But the extra oomph the neutrinos displayed was not deemed statistically significant enough to warrant a high-profile announcement.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.