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Not So Fast, Neutrino

February 24, 2012

Rheanna Sand

Back in September, the scientific community was buzzing with news that CERN had measured neutrinos traveling faster than light. The OPERA project, as it is called, had over 15 000 "events" on which they based their claim. Skeptics, however, were quick to point out that the number of measured events didn't matter if they were detected on faulty equipment. So the challenge went out to OPERA and other collaborators to repeat the experiments under different conditions, while at the same time painstakingly checking every piece of machinery, every calculation, at every step along the way.


The first neutrino events seen by the OPERA experiment in 2007 (CERN)


And, like good, proper scientists, they did. And wouldn't you know it? There might just be a #mundaneneutrinoexplanation after all: a loose cable.

Measuring the velocity of the particles relies on synchronizing GPS signals to the master clock of the detector. A fiber-optic cable is used for this task, and the diligent OPERA researchers found this connection to be faulty, causing an overestimation of speed that could account for the anomaly.

End of story, right? We can all just go about our daily lives, trusting Einstein's depressing notion that we can never reach "warp speed?" Wrong! In going through the tangle of connections and calculations, the OPERA team uncovered a second mistake. Some sort of oscillator that time-stamps the neutrinos with GPS signals was also faulty, which they believe UNDERESTIMATED the speed of the neutrinos.

They can't say at this point which of the two effects will prevail, and won't know for sure until the next set of experiments, which are scheduled for sometime in May. In addition to correcting the previous errors, they also plan to use shorter pulses, which will make readings more precise.

Let's just hope the cable guy shows up on time, and there are no solar flares that day, or rogue baguette-dropping birds!

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