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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Reader Comments

Mon, Jun 11, 2012 john thomas dubai

when any body will prove einstein is wrong

Tue, May 15, 2012 Wagoneer Minden, NV, USA

Pseu_An wrote:"I don't get how the EU & USA funded this and still question the state of the world economy. ~ Call it a draw and move on." Really? Looking back would you have asked the queen of Spain to forgo bankrolling Columbus?

Wed, Mar 7, 2012 kellycpp

The experiment's margin of error allowed for just 10 nanoseconds

Tue, Feb 28, 2012 kols

Shrimper brings up a good question - what is the margin of error for Cern's margin of error? Put another way, how did Cern determine its margin of error and how can we be sure that it's accurate within a nanosecond?

Sun, Feb 26, 2012 kellycpp

To suggest that verification of the limitation of the speed of light is of the order of "nice to know these things" vs. a touchstone of the last 100 years of macro universe theoretical understanding of the cosmos is
amazing. This would be a stunning reversal of theoretical physics because if the speed of light is not constant as calculated and observed, kicking Relativity (untouched by other tests of its efficacy) to the curb is exactly what would need to be done. So, yes this is a BIG DEAL.

MIke Bryant
Well there are about a century+ of experimental physics which demonstrate that the measurement of the speed of light at approx 186,000 miles per second. This is the measurement in basic agreement for the last 100 years or so. This is not a guess. I'd guess.

The Shrimper
Science just doesn't feel as comfortable as you do using 'fathoming' as a criteria for establishing scientific verification. The CERN particle accelerators will eventually be tasked for measurements even more exacting when some of its more ambitious experiements will attempt to reproduce the environment of the Universe fractions of fractions of a second just after the Big Bang. As far as measuring anything with total accuracy, again science has this tendency to find the concept of "total accuracy" unattainable and prefers the concept of measurements with a percentage error. In reporting the speed of light "variance", percentage error is assumed to have been a factor in the report. It wouldn't seem to be a factor left unexamined or underreported.

A substantial amount of the Scientific community feels that the evidence against AGW is not settled science and a substantial body of evidence exists that convinces this aggregate of expertise that something is there. Submitting these questions to the rational test of the scientific method is the appropriate means to untangle a messy conflict. What other cultural body of analysis would be best suited? This probably has even more disagreeable implications to the fathomers if AGW is consistently indicating a significant problem as many analyses seem to indicate. More a matter of data analysis rather than arrogance. We'll see about AGW ...soon. I sincerely hope the Fathomers are right because we don't seem to be doing anything to substantially counter the proported effects of AGW, arogance or no.

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