For last few days, Italian (actually born near Geneva) neutrino was not only a buzz among physics enthusiasts but also a top contender in google trends. Word neutrino was among top twenty googled(US) word on September 23rd. This might not be reliable if we are looking for the number of people who knew about neutrinos but at least it tells many people wanted to know about it or let’s say followed the big news. It seems obvious because it is not anymore just ‘neutrino’, it has been amalgamated with some really famous words and phrases like Einstein, relativity, death of physics etc. etc. And at the same time we have a widespread social network and information media to bounce it around. It is really a positive thing but also equally dangerous in spreading misconception among people. Many people who have very little access to the internet have already accepted that “Einstein has been proven wrong.” Some of my friends back home, Nepal, who are studying physics are already in a shock to see the failure of the special theory of relativity. And unfortunately I have not been able to correct them yet. It is the result of false presentation and weak interpretation of information. We are lingering simultaneously in an information age and also in a misinformation age like the Schrödinger‘s cat lingering in between life and death until the box is open.
So what is the information?
Yes, the OPERA experiment in Italy has recently announced a bizarre result about the speed of neutrino. They produced a beam of muon-neutrinos from CERN and directed it to the underground Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS), 732 km away where the OPERA detector detected the arrival of neutrino. The time difference between neutrino production at CERN and detection at OPERA was measured with high precision using GPS-synchronized clocks and the distance (baseline) the neutrino travelled before detection was measure using high precision geodesy. As a result they found the velocity of neutrino to be slightly greater than the velocity of light. According to Science magazine:
Over 3 years, OPERA researchers timed the roughly 16,000 neutrinos that started at CERN and registered a hit in the detector. They found that, on average, the neutrinos made the 730-kilometer, 2.43-millisecond trip roughly 60 nanoseconds faster than expected if they were traveling at light speed.
This experiment challenges well-established, Special theory of relativity. Special relativity tells us that the velocity of light in vacuum is the speed limit; no any particle can be accelerated to that speed. It is not the first time STR has been challenged. There have been several attempts before to overthrow the velocity of light limit (I have enlisted some technical papers related to previous attempts under useful links below). Scientists at OPERA have claimed that this experiment is highly accurate than the previous studies. They also told that they have tried several ways to find out the flaws in their experiment and statistical analysis but failed to find anything that would change their results greatly enough that neutrino would not surpass the speed limit. As BBC writes:
“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” the report’s author Antonio Ereditato of the OPERA collaboration told BBC News on Thursday evening.
“We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t.
“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this’.”
Since this experiment challenges a strongly established theory, it is prone to excessive skepticism and extremely difficult hurdles. If it will be successful in answering the skeptics and be able to get reproduced somewhere else then it would be a greatest physics discovery in past century. It will change the structure on which all our relativistic assumption are based. Our understanding of the universe should be modified.
It is just the beginning. Several scientists from all over should examine the experiment in detail and should try to figure out the loose ends because it is very likely that the experiment has some known/unknown problems. And attempts should also be made to replicate the experiment. If the OPERA experiment passes all these tests then only we will be able to say that, “Yay! Speed of light is not the limit.” Or “Oh well, Einstein was wrong.” It will be a great discovery no matter if it fails or succeeds. If it succeeds, we would know that our understanding about the universe had flaw and we would move more close towards finding the gears of the cosmos. And on the other hand if it fails, it would still be a validity for the special theory of relativity. But , for now it’s too early to take a stand.
- Actual Technical Paper(Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam)
- Video seminar about the experiment (New results from OPERA on neutrino properties)
- OPERA experiment
- Earlier attempt (On velocities beyond the speed of light c)
- Science (Neutrinos Travel Faster Than Light, According to One Experiment)
- BBC (Speed-of-light results under scrutiny at CERN)
- Google trends (September 23rd, 2011)