Faster Than Light Neutrinos

In 2011, researchers at CERN reported that some neutrinos appeared to travel faster than the speed of light.

The researchers were running the OPERA experiment, which was a device for detecting a particular type of neutrino. Neutrinos come in three flavors – electron, muon, and tau. The experiment was to send a beam of neutrinos from CERN to the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy. The researchers found that these neutrinos appeared to travel this distance more quickly than the speed of light.

Even at the time this discovery was considered an anomaly. Faith in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is strong, and it was assumed that there was some error that led to this result. The lay press and YouTube made some sensationalist posts announcing that science has been overturned. However, the scientific community was more measured in its response.

This is the sort of thing that gets unwarranted attention, and often leads to confusion among non-scientists. They’re told faster than light travel is impossible; then it’s possible and Einstein is wrong; and now, we’re back to Einstein being right.

The fact is, there were errors in the measuring equipment that led to this unexpected result. Few scientists seriously considered that this result was valid. No experiment had ever shown anything that could travel faster than the speed of light – not even neutrinos. There was no good reason to accept that this result was correct. It required careful examination.

Had this result been confirmed – had these neutrinos actually traveled faster than the speed of light – then there would have been a great upheaval in science. The Special Theory of Relativity would have to be abandoned or at least modified; most of physics would have to be reworked to account for this.

Some lay people have claimed that there has been a cover-up, that the neutrinos really did travel that fast, and scientists wanted to suppress the truth to preserve the status quo. That’s really not how science works. Sure, some scientists, especially older or more conservative ones, might want to avoid the upheaval; but upheavals are where the Nobel Prizes live. You can bet that a lot of younger scientists, or more adventurous ones, would have welcomed this discovery.

However, it was an anomaly. Einstein hasn’t been dethroned yet.

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