Dennis Overbye has a report on the faster-than-light neutrinos in today’s New York Times. Aside from the dreadful leaden “lede” (“Once upon a time, the only thing that traveled faster than the speed of light was gossip.”*), it gives a bunch of detail not described in my previous post. Dario Autiero, team leader, gave a talk on the results (link is below) and seemed to imply that the results were pretty solid: neutrinos sent from Switzerland to Italy appeared to travel faster than light:
According to Dr. Autiero’s team, neutrinos emanating from a particle accelerator at CERN, outside Geneva, had raced to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy — a distance of 454 miles — about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 25 parts in a million. “We cannot explain the observed effect in terms of systematic uncertainties,” Dr. Autiero told the physicists at CERN, the European organization for nuclear research. “Therefore, the measurement indicates a neutrino velocity higher than the speed of light.”
And, oh, the sweet litany of scientific doubt that accompanies such a finding (my emphasis):
“This is quite a shake-up,” said Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN. “The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong.” And the assembled CERN physicists were only too happy to oblige, diving in, after Samuel C. C. Ting, an M.I.T. Nobelist in the audience, offered his congratulations for work “very carefully done.” They asked detailed questions about, among other things, how the scientists had measured the distance from CERN to Gran Sasso to what is claimed to be an accuracy of 20 centimeters, extending GPS measurements underground. Had they, for example taken into account the location of the Moon and tidal bulges in the Earth’s crust?
That reminds me of Feynman’s famous quotation about why science is like it is:
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
The article goes on to describe the experiment in detail (I haven’t checked the physics blogs, but I’m sure they do a good job, too), and reports that the purpose of the experiment was not to measure the speed of the neutrinos, but to see them change form in flight (there are three types of neutrinos):
Measuring the speed of the neutrinos was only a side ambition, explained Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern, the head of the Opera collaboration. “Now it is becoming a main issue,” he said, adding, “we would like to see some tau neutrinos,” to appreciative laughter from the audience.
Oh, those wacky physicists! There was further criticism of the brouhaha and press-conferency nature of the announcement:
In the old days, when scientists sent around copies of journal articles and wrote letters to one another, the process of scrutiny of a controversial measurement could have happened quietly, but the Web has changed all that. Dr. Autiero’s talk at CERN and the appearance of a paper by the Opera group on the Internet Thursday night came at the end of a drumbeat of rumors and blog postings. One blog called it “Rumour of the Century.” Some physicists, inside and outside of CERN, were critical of this process, saying the laboratory was giving too much weight to a premature result by a group that was not even part of CERN. Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, said in an e-mail, “There was no need for a press release or indeed even for a scientific paper, till much more work was done. They claim that they wanted the community to scrutinize their result — well, they could have accomplished that by going around and giving talks about it.” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director general of CERN, said in an e-mail from Spain, “I agreed to the seminar at CERN because it is the duty of a lab like CERN to give the collaboration the possibility to ask the community for scrutiny of their findings.”
Bells and whistles aside, we may be on the verge of a dramatic new era in physics, akin to Planck’s study of black-body radiation. My guess is that the faster-than-light observation is still in error, but I’d be delighted to be proven wrong (see the cartoon below).
Two other items:
1. Alert correspondent “Llwddythiw” found the webcast of the CERN talk. I haven’t yet listened to it, but here’s his report:
I came across this webcast from CERN. It’s long, nearly 2 hours, of which roughly the second half is given over to Q&A. I think it’s excellent, not only for the probing questions and good answers but simply as a clear model of the way in which the scientific investigation is being pursued
2. xkcd didn’t lose any time producing a pretty funny cartoon about the new discovery:
* This statement reminds me of an incident that happened when I was about twelve. My dad, a career Army officer in the Finance Corps (that’s where they put the Jews in those days!), collaborated on a project involving the rapid destruction of American currency. The idea was that, in those Cold War days, the Treasury should develop a way to rapidly destroy stocks of currency should the Russians invade, for the enemy could use our banknotes for their own nefarious purposes. But you can’t simply burn a tight stack of bills; it’s like trying to burn a telephone book (remember them?). Finally, a combination of chemicals and fire did the trick, reducing bills and coins to hard, gray lumps resembling cement.
The Washington Post wrote an article about it, and quoted my dad on how fast they’d managed to destroy currency: “‘The only faster way I know to get rid of money,’ said Coyne, ‘is to give it to my wife.'” My mother, needless to say, wasn’t pleased.