Bad data connection could explain too-fast neutrinos

A fiber-optic link malfunction might have caused neutrinos to appear to travel faster than the speed of light--but another effect could have made them seem even faster.

As part of the OPERA experiment, physicists tracked how long it takes for neutrons generated at CERN to reach a detector 730km away in Italy.
As part of the OPERA experiment, physicists tracked how long it takes for neutrons generated at CERN to reach a detector 730km away in Italy. National Institute of Nuclear Physics (ITFN) in Italy

A relatively mundane data-link problem could explain last year's surprising finding that subatomic particles called neutrinos appeared to violate physics laws by traveling faster than the speed of light .

Problems with a fiber-optic link in the Opera experiment "could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos," CERN, the European nuclear physics center that generated the neutrinos for the experiment, said in a statement today. The fiber fed GPS location data into the experiment's master clock.

Too short a travel time to the destination--Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics lab at Gran Sasso 730 kilometers (454 miles)--gave the appearance that the neutrinos had violated a tenet firmly entrenched in physics since the days of Einstein.

Physicists had already suspected experimental error, and those involved on the Opera experiment that clocked the neutrinos refused to speculate on whether the rules of physics needed to be rewritten, choosing instead to concentrate on whether there was a problem with the experiment.

The journal Science reported the fiber-optic problem yesterday.

But here's another wrinkle: the Opera experimenters also found another problem that could actually decrease the neutrino travel time even further.

This other "possible effect concerns an oscillator used to provide the time stamps for GPS synchronizations. It could have led to an overestimate of the neutrino's time of flight," CERN said.

No doubt the Opera physicists would like better data on the situation, but they'll have to wait several weeks at least.

"The potential extent of these two effects is being studied by the Opera collaboration. New measurements with short pulsed beams are scheduled for May," CERN said.

Also expected this year is an answer to whether "hints" last year of a Higgs boson will actually be confirmed with enough certainty to qualify for actual discovery at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

CERN's huge particle accelerator complex near Geneva is used to generate neutrinos for the Opera experiment.
CERN's huge particle accelerator complex near Geneva is used to generate neutrinos for the Opera experiment. CERN
 

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