Einstein still right: CERN cites flaw in neutrino experiment

If there was one constant in the universe for the past century, it was that Albert Einstein was right about practically everything. And it turns out, he probably still is.

Einstein’s infallibility on matters concerning relativity and the universe was thrown into doubt in September, when scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) shot subatomic neutrinos 454 miles from Switzerland into Italy in a race against light. And, according to their results, the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second sooner. 

It was shocking result, to say the least, since so much of what we know about the universe is based on Einstein’s theories, one of which is that the speed of light is a constant, and nothing can travel faster.

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But now, CERN has identified a flaw in the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Racking Apparatus (OPERA) experiment that puts the neutrino results in doubt. A loose fiber optic cable synchronizing an external Global Positioning System signal with the experiment’s master clock might have thrown off their measurements, according to a CERN statement.

The discovery means that the OPERA collaboration will have to redo the experiments, which are scheduled for May.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity might not be out of the woods yet, though. CERN found two problems that could have affected the neutrino measurement—one of which may have resulted in the neutrino’s time being underestimated, the other overestimated.

A problem with an oscillator that provided time stamps for the GPS synchronizations could have overestimated the time in took the neutrinos to arrive. The problem with the cable would have underestimated the time.

At the time of the experiment, even scientists working on the project had their doubts, saying immediately that the results had to be confirmed and asking other research organizations to duplicate the experiment.

Suffice it to say that the next round of experiments will be eagerly anticipated, with our understanding of the universe hanging in the balance.

But for now, at least, Einstein has his championship belt back, still undefeated.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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