Is It Plugged In?

The tantalizing possibility that neutrinos were measured traveling faster than light was big news last September, told here in “Light Finishes Second”

[CERN physicists] beamed muon neutrinos from an accelerator at CERN outside Geneva to a detector at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, about 450 miles away, to see how many showed up as a different type, tau neutrinos. Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another. The neutrinos in the experiment were detected arriving 60 nanoseconds sooner than if they’d been traveling at lightspeed.

Now Science magazine’s website is blaming the result on a bad connection in a fiber optic cable connecting a GPS receiver (used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight) and a computer.

Jerry Pournelle answered the latest findings on Chaos Manor with this comment:

The applicable Pournelle’s Law was one of troubleshooting: 90% of the time it’s a cable. I first formulated that back in S-100 days, and it’s still true. Now it may be that we’re better off without faster than light neutrons, but I for one regret that they’re going away. Of course this was always the way to bet it, but it was a more intereresting universe when everything we thought we understood was fundamentally wrong…

I applaud that attitude in a hard science fiction writer. And it seems CERN’s scientists themselves may not be finished with the question. CERN’s OPERA team, the group doing these experiments, say the faulty cable could have led to an undercalculation instead, meaning the neutrinos may have exceeded lightspeed by an even greater margin than previously suggested:

“The optical fiber connector … brings the external GPS signal to the OPERA master clock,” explained the science lab, and it “may not have been functioning correctly when the measurements were taken. If this is the case, it could have led to an underestimate of the time of flight of the neutrinos.”

On the other hand, another equipment issue under review may restore the mundane universe to status quo ante:

A second issue with the study involves an oscillator used to provide the time stamps for the GPS synchronization. Flaws with that gadget may have led to an overestimate of speeds — keeping neutrinos in line with Einstein’s theories.

[Via Chronicles of the Dawn Patrol.]