Will relativity need revising?

Headlines were buzzing with reports that neutrinos have been clocked travelling faster than light, and even more with claims like “Einstein’s theory busted by new discovery”.1 But did neutrinos really break the light speed barrier, and are there implications for creation models?

The experiment

Researchers at CERN (Switzerland) generated neutrinos (see box), ghostly neutral particles, and shot them through the earth to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS) in Italy, travelling a straight line distance of 732 km. This was the CERN neutrinos to Gran Sasso (CNGS) experiment; also called Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA). Its aim was to observe neutrino “oscillations” between the three varieties or ‘flavours’ (see box). In particular, this experiment generated the type called ‘muon-neutrinos’, and the experimenters hoped to observe them changing into ‘tau-neutrinos’.2

But what they observed was unexpected: the neutrinos apparently arrived at the detectors 60 nanoseconds faster than light,3,4 which implied that they travelled 0.0025% faster than light, or one part in 40,000.5 This is not supposed to be possible under Einsteinian relativity. Brian Cox, the TV presenter and physicist we responded to in Doom and gloom from the BBC, said:

“If it is confirmed it will be the most important discovery in physics in at least the past 100 years. It is a very big deal, it requires a complete rewriting of our understanding of the universe … it is such an extraordinary claim that it is difficult to believe.”6

This seems like too small a difference, but it was larger than their experimental uncertainties. The researchers seemed to be very careful with their analysis. One Ph.D. physicist in Australia, John Costella, had thought their statistical analysis was wrong, but then retracted and commended the statistical analysis.7

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