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Faster than Light? Not so Fast…

Einstein was wrong! We’ve found something that travels faster than light!

By now, the allegation of physicists at CERN has gone viral through every major news outlet. Indeed, the announcement does more than tickle the fancy; it seems to vindicate every sci-fi fan who stubbornly insisted the light-barrier would eventually be defeated. Wormholes, hyperspace, jump-gates, or ansible chat… take your pick.

A quick recap: this September, the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) announced that they have observed neutrinos traveling slightly faster than the speed of light.
How much faster? Adjusted for margins of uncertainty, 50 nanoseconds faster.



According to relativity, travel at the speed of light is impossible for an object possessing mass because infinite energy would be required to vault up to such speeds. The energy contributes to the mass, resulting in infinite mass. To exceed this barrier, you would need infinite energy plus one. We leap off the ledge of science and enter philosophy at this point: What is heavier than infinite mass?

Neutrinos have long been the odd kid in the subatomic playground. Since they’re electrically neutral, they can pass through matter like phantoms. They are found throughout the universe, although the ones passing through your body right now statistically originated from the sun’s nuclear reactions. Strangest of all is the question over whether they possess mass.

In fact, it is CERN which reported transformative observations in neutrinos which indicate they may have mass after all.


Mass or massless, our understanding of physics today is predicated on the light barrier being absolute. If the folks on the OPERA project are correct, then something interesting is going on.

The problem is that they are most certainly NOT correct.

Science is not a belief system, and it has no problem refining itself. When a startling new discovery is announced, we as skeptics must approach that discovery with due diligence and investigation.
And that’s the real news here: the OPERA folks have a phantom on their hands — an experiment which has yet to be replicated, yet to confirmed through independent experiment. It is awaiting peer review, and their peers aren’t too happy about the hoopla.


“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said astrophysicist and cosmologist Martin Rees of the University of Cambridge. “I think it will be perceived in retrospect as an embarrassment that this claim received so much publicity—the inevitable consequence of posting a preprint on the Web.”


Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin had this to say:

“The report of this experiment is pretty impressive, but it bothers me that there is plenty of evidence that all sorts of other particles never travel faster than light, while observations of neutrinos are exceptionally difficult. It is as if someone said that there are fairies in the bottom of their garden, but they can only be seen on dark, foggy nights.”


And theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University offered the most biting commentary yet:

“It is an embarrassment as far as I am concerned. It was not unreasonable for the experimentalists to submit a paper with an unexplained result. But a press conference on a result, which is extremely unlikely to be correct, before the paper has been refereed, is very unfortunate—for CERN and for science. Once it is shown to be wrong, everyone loses credibility.

Krauss’ point is the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw the blazing headlines. All the evidence,  including that collected from supernovas showering our corner of the galactic neighborhood (and which indicate that photons and neutrinos travel at the same speed) runs contrary to the OPERA claim. It would be remarkable if it turns out to be true, but it is way too early to blow the trumpets.

Arguably the best article on this right now is Ethan Siegel’s take on Science Blogs. 

12 comments to Faster than Light? Not so Fast…

  • erulora

    “50 nanoseconds faster”

    Small nitpick, but without a distance this is pretty meaningless.

  • davidgruber

    There are a few points here, that I’d like to comment (long time reader, first comments)

    1. “50 nanoseconds faster” doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. “seconds” are the units of time and not speed.

    2. The people from OPERA *are* skeptics. They did the experiment, apparently something didn’t work because after considering all known systematic effects they found something that cannot be reconciled with our current understanding of modern physics. They ask the community to help them find out what is going on, i.e. that other experiments confirm or reject their finding. Have you seen the presentation at CERN? I strongly suggest you do so. [It seems to me that NONE of the above peers has actually bothered watching the press conference]. It can be found here. http://indico.cern.ch/conferenceDisplay.py?confId=155620

    3. I am pretty sure that you haven’t read the actual pre-print (see here http://arxiv.org/pdf/1109.4897v1). In it they write: “Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in
    order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results.” They themselves are not sure what the heck is going on. Are they saying “Einstein is wrong”? No!

    4. Above, you cite 3 physicists which aren’t happy about the results. Fine. They all raise valid points. However, none of them has been involved in the experiment. On the other hand we have 174 [particle] physicists who worked on this experiment and signed the paper (meaning that they feel confident to have taken into account all effects they could possibly think of).

    5. *Nobody* will loose credibility! Do you think that they just decided, over coffee maybe, to write and publish this article to just see what is going to happen?. They were perfectly aware what they were doing and the shitstorm that was coming. Nobody of these people wanted to loose credibility. But even after (6?) months of checking and re-checking they couldn’t explain their findings. What were they supposed to do? Be quiet? Forget the results? Stop [unthinkable] discoveries?

    Just a suggestion: Please gather some information before copying and pasting quotes from other people [which apparently haven’t read the article or watched the conference]. Usually, I like the articles here. But this one is really poor.

  • Erulóra

    Out of curiosity, I did a back-of-the-envelope type calculation. If the findings are correct, those neutrinos were about 6 m/s faster. Or 2E-8 percent.

  • Erulóra

    Wish I could edit. I meant 2E-6%. Sorry.

  • petrucio

    The only one blowing the trumpets around this story are the meme replicating machines like yours, not the authors. They did an outstanding job of trying to find the errors in their measurements, and after years of failing to do so, they requested help from the scientific community to do so. They are still ASSUMING, at this point, that they were wrong.

    Good for them. Good for the scientific community. Everyone is winning credibility here. The only credibility I see damaged seems to be yours and the other real trumpet blowers.

    You’ve done here a ‘lazy journalism’ job, precisely the one we see the rogues so frequently (and correctly) bash. “I was wrong” – that is the perfect time to show you are a true skeptic and say it – or you can do like Shermer and never comment on your own posts.

    PS: I didn’t mean to be so mean, sorry about that. But this really got to me.

  • petrucio

    BTW Erulóra, if the erros in your measurements can be shown to be lower than 2e6 / 2e8 percent, than 2e6 / 2e8 percent IS a freaking awesomely important and serious result.

    Impossible is impossible, even if it’s just barely impossible (but being ‘barely’ impossible indicates you are more likely to have larger measurement errors than you thought – which turns out seems to be the sticky issue in all this).

  • Brian Trent

    David and Petrucio,

    Hello. There are a couple things to consider here, the first of which is your assumption that I’m criticizing the OPERA team. You’ve taken it very personally, which is interesting because my point of contention is with the media’s treatment of it, not the folks at OPERA (not really… aside from a point I’ll mention below.) Of course they needed to publish their results (in print, but again, see below). And yes, I have reviewed their presentation, which covered their own skeptical bases fairly well. It wasn’t until the publicity explosion that I felt it was a necessary subject to address from a skeptical angle.

    At present, we have a result that — admitted in my post above — is intriguing. I was also intrigued by the reports of “achieved cold fusion” which you may remember from years back. I’m intrigued when recurring shadows on Mars suggest possible biological origin. My issue here is two-fold: The media’s trumpets, and the lack of independent confirmation. Especially in the extant media climate, I do concur with those who feel a disservice is done by an experiment which suggests something so radically momentous, without independent research being done to corroborate it. In a different climate, that would not be an issue.

    Clearly we’re all passionate about this. I was honestly surprised by your reactions, as I thought it was clear. I hope this explains it better on my part.

    On a related note, Petrucio, if you’ve followed my column here, you should know that I often post in the comments with readers. I do sometimes require more than 24 hours to check back here. Cool?

  • Brian Trent

    Petrucio, one additional comment: You and I have spoken in the comments sections of other posts I’ve made here, so you know very well that I’m a responsive guy.

  • petrucio

    Thanks for clearing that up, but your post does indeed seems to pass on a different message then the one you now seem to have intended. I guess we had a communication problem.

    I apologized before and I’ll do it again: sorry about being so harsh. And I guess I’ve let my anger of Shermer’s lack of comments be unfairly redirected at you. Sorry about that too. Cool.

  • davidgruber

    Dear Brian,

    thanks for answering.
    I think I understand now what you actually wanted to say. This wasn’t clear from the article (maybe because I was dazzled by my [negative] emotions towards your article). It seemed to me that you implicitly put all the OPERA scientists in the “crank/crazy” group (as did the 3 scientists who you quote in your article).

    I agree with you on the media issue.
    Unfortunately, they always exaggerate these kind of things (kind of understandable since they want people to read it… different topic).

    Glad we cleared things up.

  • Vance

    “The problem is that they are most certainly NOT correct.”

    I would venture to suggest that you must have meant almost certainly NOT correct. I know that this made me think that you were being unnecessarily harsh with the OPERA scientists.

  • […] September the OPERA collaboration in Italy announced that they had detected neutrinos apparently traveling faster than the speed of light. In their experimental setup the neutrinos arrived about 60 nanoseconds ahead of what the speed of […]

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