CERN neutrinos faster than light?

The wires — AP and Reuters — say that CERN has detected neutrinos moving at superluminal speed. Which isn’t supposed to be possible. In fact, it’s against the law, physics-wise. Nothing goes faster than light. Light has zero rest mass, and for something to go faster than that it would have to have less than zero rest mass, and now you’re talking science fiction. A neutrino is a particle and it should be subject to the speed limit like everything else.

But at CERN, they’re seeing neutrinos zipping along with the top down, with the drivers drinking roadies and tossing the empties into ditches.

Einstein’s worst nightmare.

[Alexandra Petri has a great line in her blog post: “This is so huge that the Europeans are asking us to check it. They haven’t done that since the rise of the Third Reich.”]

Let me weigh in on this, stipulating that a) I have no actual information or insight, and b) I am not a credible source on particle physics or really anything else, other than, lately, that crashing satellite.

First, if the finding is verified, we could be entering a phase of new physics. CERN is a smart outfit with elite instrumentation. They wouldn’t go public with this on a whim. So this is clearly a story, if one that has to be framed as fraught with provisional conclusions.

The Sagan Rule clearly applies: This is an extraordinary claim, and it will require extraordinary evidence. Saying, “We checked our instruments and we can’t find anything that would throw off the measurement by 60 nanonseconds” isn’t extraordinary evidence.

Parsimonious interpretation: They need to recalibrate.

Moreover, Einstein’s theory (Special Relativity, 1905) isn’t based primarily on measurements (though the Michelson-Morley experiment played a role in his thinking). Einstein’s theory emerged from thought experiments. It was a deep insight into the nature of the universe. Subsequent experiments for more than a century have verified that he was right.

For the new finding to carry a lot of weight, it would need more than an instrumental measurement. It would need a theoretical foundation. Otherwise you have something that is enigmatic rather than revolutionary.

So I’m sticking with Einstein, for now.

[Note: I’m going to be sending out the occasional tweet on the UARS crash so if you’re interested, follow me on Twitter @JoelAchenbach. I don’t tweet much and am still getting the hang of the concept, but this seems like a good way to update that story. Thanks.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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