Challenging Einstein: Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Result From CERN And Explaining What It Really Means

So CERN has stunned us with a result and this one doesn’t even come from the LHC. The premier European high energy research institute has detected neutrinos that seem to move at a speed greater than that of light, violating one of the most sacred pillars of physics Einstein’s Special Relativity. You must have read about it we posted it here. So what about these faster-than-light neutrinos? Why are so many people all excited about them?

Faster Than Light Neutrinos, Claims CERN:
Yes? You Called? Say What!

In this article, I will try and explain that, touching upon four crucial points. First we need to understand why people are not ready to believe the result in the first place. Next, we’ll understand whether this is believable or not. Is CERN just tricking us or have they put real hard work behind this before publishing it? Next, we shall talk about the implications of this result, if it is proved right. Lastly, we discuss how there can still be flaws and where some glitches might be found in the coming days.

Unlike the popular media, scientists are treading softly on this result. They are not yet ready to say that Einstein was wrong, although that is what it would imply. They are merely reporting facts at this moment, stating the results as got in the experiment. The result is very possibly wrong, but let’s take a closer look.

What on earth are Neutrinos?

The real heroes of this story, Neutrinos are the slipperiest of all known particles. They carry no charge, almost no mass and interact extremely feebly with other matter and that too via the weak interaction. They’re nearly impossible to detect. They leave no tracks in bubble chambers (no charge), don’t interact with each other to form clumps (no strong interactions, like those of protons and neutrons) or speak with normal matter particles. Scientists were forced to assume its existence to solve a puzzle (the beta decay problem), and, even though neutrinos have been detected after that by several detectors, their properties remain largely mysterious. They are giving a headache once more.

Why are people not ready to believe it?

Simply put, it’s Einstein. People are not expecting anything new and now they find this! This is just too unexpected. Why take a result so flagrantly conflicting with all known physical results at face value? Well…

Is this result Believable?

As an answer the first of our questions, I would go with a Yes‘. The result is totally believable in the sense that the experiment and analysis seem water-tight at this moment. Scientists of the OPERA collaboration have been looking at the data for three years! They have done everything scientifically possible to discredit their own finding, but have only managed to strengthen it.

Remember, we told you in the particle physics articles, what confidence level means? A confidence level, quoted as some n-sigma, n’ being an integer, refers to the amount of confidence the experimenter has on his/her own results. A 3-sigma result is one which is significant enough to be considered a potential for detection’. This means that the doubts are less than 0.3%. We’re just getting warmed up! For a discovery’ we need a minimum of 5-sigma, which is a confidence level of 99.9999%.

The current results are a 6-sigma, at 99.999999% confidence level, high and above the threshold required to get a discovered’ tag!! This still doesn’t mean that it is true. It just means that the possibility that this is merely a statistical fluctuation is extremely small. They two are very close, but not the same.

Schematic layout of the OPERA experiment.

The real motivation for believing in what CERN has found is the methodology they’ve applied in finding out the results. They had found this result 3 years back, but never jumped the gun in publishing it. They checked and re-checked everything, found crucial error bars and found that this result survives. They added more parameters contributing smaller errors, hoping that they’ll somehow add up and then give the necessary’ error bars. They didn’t.

We’ll just talk about the use of GPS and cesium atomic clocks to measure time and how accurately the distance was measured.  Since velocity is simply distance divided by time, we need both parameters accurately.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.

  • Ujjwal Kanth

    Most amazing article Debjyoti. If I didn’t know you previously I would have refused to believe it.
    Nevertheless, If this is true, it is going to change everything every single facet of physics.
    I too have my faith in, as you say ‘Grand old man of physics’ and totally understand the irony of the present day physicists here.
    Thanks a lot for this wonderful post.

  • Debsuvra Ghosh

    Thanks for a exhaustive and engaging article. After reading the original paper from arXiv, I was also shaken to my core and thought about the progress in Physics for last century. The results are too shattering and at times amazingly unbelievable. What I personally believe is that this may open a complete new horizon in Physics that may have not been endeavoured before and also might have been ignored on the face of existing theories. Special theory of relativity is confidently not so easy to prove wrong, most probably there are some errors with the experiment itself or we are interpreting something in a wrong fashion. I hope the later is true and that may bring us a complete new understanding of how neutrinos work.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    All of my investigations seem to point to the conclusion that they are small particles, each carrying so small a charge that we are justified in calling them neutrons. They move with great velocity, exceeding that of light – Nikola Tesla 1932

    Experimental tests of Bell inequality have shown that microscopic causality must be violated, so there must be faster than light travel. According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, nothing with nonzero rest mass can go faster than light. But zero rest mass particles can go faster than the light. Neutrinos have a small nonzero rest mass. Faster than light interactions are a necessity and they provide the non local structure of the universe. We should understand the relation between local and nonlocal events like the dynamics of universal structure. In any physical theory, it is assumed that there is some kind of nonlocal structure violates causality. If neutrinos are traveling faster than light, then neutrinos must be on the otherside of the light barrier going backwards in time, where the future can interact with the past.

    – Nalliah Thayabharan

  • Jorge

    I agree with Ghosh. This will be a great to have a new understanding of physics. I know it’s hard to believe Relativity is wrong but it was also hard to believe classical physics (which also explained hundred of experiments) were wrong when first quantum experiments appeared.

    And this will not be the first experiment. Last year observations of John Webb about physical constants not being really “constant” through the universe also suggest that Einstain’s equivalence principle is wrong.

    He indeed was a genious, but sciences is not about having “faith in a Grand old man of physics”. Science is about proving and no matter how fine a theory looks, nature has the last word.

    • Debjyoti Bardhan

      I agree. Your point is very well taken. However, SR has had tremendous success. Repeating that success is not easy. I know that no one should have faith in anyone, no matter how big a name he/she is, but the more likely scenario at this moment is that there is some mistake in the experiment rather than relativity being wrong. That’s all that I intended to say in the article.

  • Pingback: Tyranny of Ego « Simple Country Physicist()

  • M. Reza Tirgan

    CERN neutrino moves faster than the light speed. Is Einstein wrong?.
    “Looks like Einstein may have been wrong — An international team of scientists at CERN has recorded neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light”. “measurements over three years showed the neutrinos moving 60 nanoseconds quicker than light over a distance of 730 km between Geneva and Gran Sasso, Italy”. “If confirmed, the discovery would overturn a key part of Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which says that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light”…/scientific-breakthrough-physicists-at-cern-have-recorded. According to H particle-paths hypothesis (in site, a particle, e.g. photon, moving in spatial medium, Sec. 7(4)3, part A (of the site), has irreversible path-length, Sec. 2(4)4, of expanding characteristic of configuration and time’s arrow; while, a particle moving in mass medium, Sec. 7(4)3, part D, has irreversible path-length of contracting mode of configuration at opposite sign to the former and time arrow reversal. Therefore, neutrino contrary to photon that reflects by the mirror can penetrate in mass medium. Thus, its total time travel just during the measurement is reduced respect to that of photon in this regards; please refer also to please refer also to Sec. 5(16)11, Sec. 5(15)2b, and Simulation 8(7)2, E5a, item 17E. Factually:
    A) Just at the moment of neutrino detection (or striking) by detector, according to Note 5(16)7, g2, contractons (as signal) is emitted spontaneously, Sec. 7(4)2f, part c, within H hall-package tunnel, Sec. 5(9)3d, part c, in backward path of neutrino emission towards the source, Fig. 5(10), i.e. completeness of measurement. In other words, the neutrino path is composed of two paths in vacuum and mass media as stated above with two different characteristics path-lengths of opposite sign.
    B) The mass medium of neutrino travel is its detector “The OPERA neutrino detector at LNGS is composed of two identical Super Modules, each consisting of an instrumented target section with a mass of about 625 tons followed by a magnetic muon spectrometer. Each section is succession of walls filled with emulsion film/lead units interleaved with pairs of 6.7 6.7 planes of 256 horizontal and vertical scintillator strips composing of target Tracker (TT). The TT allows the location of neutrino interactions in the target.” ArXiv: 1109.4897v1 section 2.
    As a result, the neutrino like other particles may moves equal or than less than light speed in free vacuum. “The findings may need many runs and checks to be confirmed. Once confirmed, it raises many questions, including why such an effect wasn’t noticed before. The big question would be this: What happens to Special Relativity, which is an extremely reliable theory?” › Science; please refer also to Sec. 2(6)2a. Based on above discussion Einstein is in a right way, i.e any particle cannot eceed the light speed in normal vacuum.

  • Sheena

    I am not trying to start an argument or seem to be condescending, but what use is this type of technology?
    What can be done with neutrinos that can move faster then light? Would this be a step in developing travel or exploration at these speeds for man or machine?
    Would someday our NASA program be able to shoot a camera ‘light years’ into space and see things we can only imagine now? This is interesting and I am in no way belittling it I swear, but trying to find the relevance.

    • Debjyoti Bardhan

      Your question is perfectly valid. The point is that not everything that happens in basic sciences has to have an immediate application in technology. Remember that the atomic structure came about and that didn’t have much direct effect on existing technology. However it was instrumental in unraveling the properties of Silicon, which is a mainstay of the semiconductor industry, as you know.
      If this result is actually true, we junk out 100 years of science at least and that comprises a lot! Surely, I don’t have to emphasize the seriousness of that.

      • Sheena

        thank you and yes point well taken.. I guess i was just curious as to the ideas of where this could lead… and yes you are right to throw out 100 years of past science and ‘discoveries’ would be heartbreaking to many who have made those old ways their life’s work.