My father always used to tell me “measure twice, cut once.” I am not remarkably handy around the house, but before I buy windows or flooring or anything else that requires exact measurements, I tend to measure several times before making my purchase. Physicists in
Europe must be wishing they had measured a few more times before announcing last year that neutrinos, chargeless and almost massless subatomic particles, travel faster than the speed of light.
As reported in The Wall Street Journal (Environment & Science: February 24, 2012), scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research now suspect that they may have made a mistake. This turns out to be a huge issue because if neutrinos really can travel faster than the speed of light, then Einstein was wrong and we need to re-think current theories of relativity and gravity and reexamine the laws of particle physics and how the world was formed. When the findings were announced last spring, the scientific world was quite shocked but skeptical since most data had shown that neutrinos were not faster than light.
The claim that neutrinos travel faster than light was based on measuring the time that neutrinos sent from a lab in
Geneva took to arrive in another lab 450 miles away in . Neutrinos apparently arrived 60 nanoseconds before a light beam would have been expected to arrive. Now scientists are worried that the measurements were off because either an oscillator that synchronizes the clocks in Italy Switzerland and may have been malfunctioning or the fiber-optic cable that transports the Global Positioning System signal to the master clock may not have been working well. Italy
This would not be the first time that small problems have led to huge issues. For example, small design flaws in the Hubble space telescope cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix. The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because some scientists had used imperial rather than metric units. Still, that a faulty cable may be the reason that fundamental laws of physics were challenged is mind-boggling. The European Organization for Nuclear Research plans to repeat the experiments this spring (with new cables). As for me, I am betting on Einstein.Noted by WVR, MD
*This filler excerpt can be found in the May 2012 Pediatrics print journal p. 876, or via online here.