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Can the Elusive Neutrino Disrupt All That We Know?

February 26, 2012

What does 60 nanoseconds (a nanosecond is one-billionths of a second) make and how can that disrupt the basis for modern day physics? Not much unless you’re a neutrino. So what is a neutrino? If you answered a new snack food, eeehhhhh! Try again.  Your right, if you said “neutrino,” an “ethereal particle, which hails from deep within the sun and violent cosmic events such as supervovae and passes through your body.1  “The sun produces so many neutrinos as a by-product of nuclear reactions that many billions pass through your eye every second.2  

The scientific community defines neutrino3 as: “an elementary particle which holds no electrical charge, travels at nearly the speed of light, and passes through ordinary matter with virtually no interaction.  Neutrinos are created as part of radioactive decay.”

Now with that clearing things up, what has 60 nanoseconds have to do with anything? Recent “unconfirmed” experiments may have measured the neutrino traveling faster than the speed of light. If true, the results challenge a cornerstone of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which itself forms the foundation of modern physics.

Saswato R. Das4 of The New York Times reported:

“….. a recent experiment at CERN, (a beam of neutrinos was fired toward a detector in Gran Sasso, Italy, 454 miles away) physicists saw that streams of neutrinos were traveling just above the speed of light, i.e., reached the detector 60 nanoseconds faster than light.”

“….. (Einstein) said that the speed of light in a vacuum, approximately 186,282 miles per second, is the ultimate speed limit. Nothing in the universe can travel faster.”

“….. relativity has been widely applied. Anyone who uses GPS navigation to find an address is benefiting from a practical application of the theory of relativity”

“….. modern physics is built on the pillars of relativity and quantum mechanics……The speed of light shows up everywhere: from estimates of the size and age of the universe to the radius of black holes to the power generated by nuclear reactors.”

“….. If it the CERN experiment is correct, then our scientific understanding is flawed. All sorts of strange things could happen if the speed of light can be exceeded. Causality — the relation between cause and effect — would be affected. Anyone traveling faster than the speed of light would be able to see fragments of a broken vase coming together. Faster-than-light travelers could go back in time — say, leave New York for Paris one evening and return the previous day.”

Geoff Brumfiel states in Scientific American: “If neutrinos are traveling faster than light speed, then one of the most fundamental assumptions of science—that the rules of physics are the same for all observers—would be invalidated2.”  Geoff points out “At least one other experiment has seen a similar effect before, albeit with a much lower confidence level. In 2007, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment in Minnesota saw neutrinos from the particle-physics facility Fermilab in Illinois arriving slightly ahead of schedule. At the time, the MINOS team downplayed the result, in part because there was too much uncertainty in the detector’s exact position to be sure of its significance.”

With so much at stake, every aspect of both experiment are undergoing exhaustive examination.
In a follow-up article, Kenneth Chang of The New York Times reported last week:

“….. Two Technical Problems Leave Neutrinos’ Speed in Question”

“….. CERN, which runs a particle-smashing machine called the Large Hadron Collider, found two problems with its equipment that could have affected its measurements.”

“One is an electronic component that marked the exact times for GPS measurements. (The experiment requires such precise measurements of time and distance that even continental drift is taken into account.)”

“However, that error would have sped up the neutrinos even more.”

“The second potential error is in the fiber-optic cabling that carried the GPS data five miles to the underground detector. The investigation discovered that for dimmer light pulses, the circuit receiving the data introduced delay — up to 60 billionths of a second — that could bring the neutrinos’ speed back under the speed of light.”

“Antonino Zichichi, a theoretical physicist and emeritus professor at the University of Bologna, speculates that the “superluminal” neutrinos detected could be slipping through extra dimensions in space, as predicted by theories such as string theory.”

In closing, a new round of experiments with fixed circuitry and cabling will begin this March. It will be sometime before these findings are conclusively proven or disproved. Either way, it’s highly unlikely that any of this will change our view of the world or how we live. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know this is the stuff that science is made of.

1. “Particle Primer,”  Alex Stone, The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2012;
2. “Particles Found to Travel Faster Than Speed of Light,” Geoff Brumfiel, Scientific American, September 22, 2011;
3. “Neutrino,” Andrew Zimmerman Jones, Physics;
4. “Was Einstein Wrong?” Saswato R. Das, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, September 29, 2011;
5. “Two Technical Problems Leave Neutrinos’ Speed in Question,” Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, February 23, 2012;

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