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Q: CERN’s faster than light neutrino thing: WTF?

Physicist: The story here is that CERN has been generating neutrinos, firing them 730km, to a detector in Gran Sasso, Italy, and those neutrinos have been consistently (so far as their instruments say) arriving 60 ns (0.00000006 seconds) earlier than they should.

These sorts of things crop up every few months, with varying credibility, but the credibility of this group is higher than most. Faster than light claims have always (so far…) turned out to be a hoax, or a misunderstanding, or an error.

In this case it’s very likely to be an error. When you’re talking about neutrinos you’re usually talking about just a couple of data points. You generate a fantastic number in beam-form somewhere, fire it many times through the Earth at a detector far away and, with luck, you’ll detect one.

There are a lot of ways for a 60 nanosecond or 60 foot (light speed is about 1 foot per nanosecond) error to creep into an experiment involving a beam of “ghost particles” traveling 730km, from CERN to Gran Sasso, that produces no more than one or two data points at a time.

This is news firstly, I suspect, because everybody hates the light-speed cap. Ever since 1905, when Einstein did his big, fancy “you can’t go faster than light” paper, there has been an unending tide of people coming up with ideas for moving faster than light. Every single one has utterly failed, but the point is that the cap has a way of getting under everyone’s skin.

But mostly this is news because special relativity (which immediately implies the light speed cap) has been verified thousands and thousands of times in the last hundred and six years.

If you were to hear “scientists find that mustachioed men tend to ride unicycles more often than their clean-shaven brethren” you wouldn’t think twice about it (well, maybe twice), because there isn’t a towering monolith of evidence to the contrary. You might wonder why they bothered looking into it, but whatever.

At the other end of the spectrum is relativity, which is really what’s at stake. It is so well tested, and so well verified, that it has become the yardstick against which other physical theories are measured. Often you can hear physicists laughing (cackling) at other physicists and saying things like “… and their scalar field wasn’t even Lorentz invariant!” (translation: “their thing violates relativity”). Every single time anyone has ever made the claim that they have evidence that there’s something wrong with relativity, they’ve turned out to be wrong.

Unlike the sound barrier or the 4-minute mile, which were thought to be impossible merely because they were very difficult, the speed of light is inexorably tied up in the nature of existence, and matter, and time, and all that falderal.

So the reaction of most physicists to the CERN faster-than-light fiasco is: “wow… they really messed something up”. In fact, the physicists at CERN (being physicists themselves) published the results not so much to say “hey, look what we did” so much as “fellow dudes and dudets… we really messed something up”.

If it’s a real discovery we should be extremely interested! But, don’t hold your breath.

Update: They did indeed mess something up.

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