Saturday, September 24, 2011


Scientists studying neutrino oscillations have recently managed to screw up their measurements and come up with a speed for the particles that's higher than the speed of light. For those of you not familiar with particle physics, think of neutrinos as very light electrons but without the electrical charge. Having no electrical charge they seldom interact with matter and can pass through thousands of miles of rock undisturbed. So they generate the neutrinos at CERN and measure the time it takes for them to arrive in Italy. Of course, according to all we know so far and according to countless experiments, no particle travels faster than light. This paper, the authors of which could easily fill up a large bus or maybe a small train, details their method. The paper is properly written and simply presents their method and results; it makes no extraordinary claims, but rather states that the authors have yet to identify any more sources of error and are searching for those. Of course the media have picked up the story. The respectable outlets maintain the cautious tone, but several are trying to make this into a sensationalist news story: "Einstein's Relativity could be wrong". No. The chances of Relativity being wrong are extremely slim. The chances that an undetected error screwed up the measurements is overwhelming. The time measurement and calculation error from known sources is about 10 nanoseconds and the particles have supposedly arrived 60 ns too early. Given the complicated system used to do the measurements, whose systematic (fixed) errors that had to be calibrated are much higher than that, it's very likely that this result is due to an equipment problem or a mistake. For example, does the circuitry always have the same delay? Does that 8km-long optical fiber always have the same delay? Are those delays during the experiment equal to the ones that have been measured while not doing the experiment? 60 ns is a pretty long time, given that one light-nanosecond is about 30 cm. But it could easily arrive from faulty equipment or bad measurement techniques. I'm sure that in the following weeks or months these errors will be identified. Until then, supernova measurements indicate that neutrinos arrive at the same time as light, not earlier. If they were really going faster, then the signal measured from a supernova that's thousands of light-years away would precede the optical telescope detection by days or weeks, which we're not seeing. So neutrinos don't travel faster than light. One might think that there's a small region, near the area where the high-energy reaction that creates the neutrinos takes place, where some extraordinary phenomenon might be happening, and that is causing the effect - once they leave that area they behave normally. This is also highly unlikely. It's true that Relativity has to be adjusted at small scales and high energies, but those scales are very far off and a space-time distortion large enough to cause 60 ns or 18 meters of error is surely going to be noticed and cause some very weird shit so to speak.
So there. Calm down and wait for that defective satellite to fall on your heads tomorrow.