Neutrinos and Cables

By Sean Carroll | February 22, 2012 1:16 pm

I’m a little torn about this: the Twitter machine and other social mediums have blown up about this story at Science Express, which claims that the faster-than-light neutrino result from the OPERA collaboration has been explained as a simple glitch:

According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.

I suppose it’s possible. But man, that would make the experimenters look really bad. And the sourcing in the article is just about as weak as it could be: “according to sources familiar with the experiment” is as far as it goes. (What is this, politics?)

So it’s my duty to pass it along, but I would tend to reserve judgment until a better-sourced account comes along. Not that there’s much chance that neutrinos are actually moving faster than light; that was always one of the less-likely explanations for the result. But this isn’t how we usually learn about experimental goofs.

Update from Sid in the comments: here’s a slightly-better-sourced story.

Update again: and here is the official CERN press release. Not exactly admitting that a loose cable is at the heart of everything, or even that the result was wrong, but saying that there were problems that could potentially invalidate the result.

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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