Possible Explanation Found For Speeding Neutrinos

Remember, a couple weeks ago, that experiment in which CERN created and sent neutrinos to Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy, and found to their amazement that the neutrinos got there “faster than light”?

Well, hold on a moment. Prof. Ronald van Elburg of University of Groningen points out that the time signal used in the experiment, from a clock aboard an orbiting GPS satellite, is in motion with respect to either end of the CERN-to-Gran Sasso path. That introduces an additional frame of reference, and all you relativity fans out there know what that means. The two endpoints are fixed, relative to one another. But the clock is not, relative to either endpoint. And if you view the clock as your point of reference, CERN and Gran Sasso are moving with respect to each other, specifically, they are moving toward each other at a rate that just about explains the difference in apparent travel time of the particles. It’s not really faster than light: the distance traveled is shorter than previously assumed.

The thing about relativity is that it messes with your intuition, so much so that even genuine experts are liable to neglect important factors when the experiment is just a little bit complicated.

Oh well… it was exciting for a while.


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  • MandT  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Well done!

    • Steve  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      MandT, if this explanation proves out after sufficient testing, van Elburg deserves much credit for seeing something which arguably every physicist in that room at the initial announcement was qualified to have noticed… but van Elburg did, in fact, notice it. Even I felt vague embarrassment for not having thought of it, but hey, I’m not a particle physicist.

  • Bryan  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    Yep, that would explain it. They need a fixed position clock.

    There was a famous experiment that used two atomic clocks that were synchronized and then sent around the world, one flying East and the other West, that showed the discrepancy caused by the rotation of the earth, and was used as a proof of relativity.

    • Steve  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 8:00 pm

      Bryan, they chose a GPSS-borne clock because synchronizing two ground-based atomic clocks 700 mi (?) apart to that degree of precision is a major challenge… it was their way of making one clock serve both ends. And once the appropriate mathematical correction is applied, it should work just as intended.

      If I remember the experiment you described, one of the researchers remarked that that would be the only time any physicist’s work offered him or her an opportunity to travel around the world at someone else’s expense. 🙂

  • NTodd Pritsky  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    I enjoyed the RWNJ using the original report as proof we shouldn’t pay attention to climate change science: because, golly, if Einstein’s wrong, how can you trust anything from science? Ignoring, of course, the fact that science is self-correcting, which this whole incident demonstrates.

    • Steve  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 10:55 pm

      NTodd, it took me a long time, but I finally comprehended that the typical RWNJ sees science, not as a method for finding things out, but as a faith, and of course a false faith, since the RWNJ already knows the one true faith.

      If science is something you “believe in,” then it is in conflict with (say) Christianity, and must be fought. The irony is that it’s a battle scientists in general don’t want (though I won’t speak for PZ Myers 😆 ). Any RWNJ is unlikely to realize that science is an approach not a faith, that all scientific results are provisional and scientists are just fine with that, that scientific paradigms, far from being the grounds of eternal faiths, are only frameworks on which we hang what we know at the moment.

      That said, we know quite a lot at the moment, and expect to know still more, and I have little patience with people who insist we should act as if we did not know those things. But I’m an impatient sort of guy.

      (Remind me one day to tell you a story of the late great Stephen Jay Gould and a lecture he gave at Rice University.)

      • NTodd Pritsky  On Monday October 17, 2011 at 11:11 pm

        Oh yes, that was my main point: they can argue with a straight face that science (or atheism, even) is a “faith” without understanding how it actually works. Frustrating sometimes, amusing other times.

        As I’ve said before, it reminds me of the Name of the Rose: http://www.dohiyimir.org/2011/08/welcome-back-dark-ages.html

        Anyhoo, sounds like your story could be a good post.

        • Steve  On Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 9:03 am

          I’m about to write the post now…

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