October 18, 2011
Relativity Corrections Could Explain Faster Than Light Neutrinos
When researchers at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) observed what they believed to be sub-atomic particles moving faster than the speed of light, some believed that the discovery could challenge the very fundamental laws of the universe.
It appears that those concerns were unfounded, as new research from scientists has shed light on exactly why CERN officials believe they witnessed beams of tiny particles of neutrinos traveling 60 nanoseconds (or 60 billionths of a second) quicker than the speed of light from their laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso facility in Italy some 500 miles (730 km) away.
Furthermore, as Evan Ackerman of the website Dvice wrote Friday, "In an ironic twist, the very theory that these neutrinos would have disproved may explain exactly what happened."
According to Ackerman, the rapid movement of neutrinos and the relatively short distance they had to travel as part of the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) experiment meant that "in order to figure out exactly how long it takes a given neutrino to make the trip, you need to know two things very, very precisely: the distance between the two points, and the time the neutrino leaves the first point (the source) and arrives at the second point (the detector)."
During the original experiment, he said, CERN researchers used GPS to measure both distance and time for the OPERA experiment. They were able to determine the distance down to approximately 20 centimeters, Ackerman added, and they were able to use time signals from those same GPS satellites to clock the particles' travel time. However, he points out that the scientists may have forgotten to take one variable into account, and that is relativity.
Dutch researcher Ronald A.J. van Elburg has written a new paper explaining, in the words of As Damon Poeter of PCMag, how "the effects of relativity as they pertain to the GPS satellite's measurements require two corrections to the perceived time of travel."
Those corrections alter the travel time of the neutrinos by 64 seconds, enough to return "the apparent velocities of neutrinos back to a value not significantly different from the speed of light," van Elburg claims, according to Poeter. This could explain the results, though the PCMag writer adds that CERN scientists are claiming that they did account for these specific factors in their original findings.
Van Elburg is not the only one working to debunk CERN's findings, however.
According to an October 14 story by Wired's Adam Mann, "In the three weeks after the announcement, more than 80 explanations have been posted to the preprint server arxiv."
"While some suggest the possibility of new physics, such as neutrinos that are traveling through extra dimensions or neutrinos at particular energies traveling faster than light, many offer less revolutionary explanations for the OPERA experiment," he added, with different researchers citing astrophysical observations, the Standard Model of physics, and other grounds in an attempt to explain the supposed "faster than light speed" particles observed by CERN.
In September, shortly after the initial report, physicist and OPERA spokesman Antonio Ereditato called the discovery "a complete surprise," and the team told AFP reporters that they had spend some six months "checking, testing, controlling and rechecking everything" before making a public announcement.
"We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing," Ereditato added, in a separate interview with the Telegraph. "We now want colleagues to check them independently."
On the Net:
- European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN)
- Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA)
- Arxiv (Cornell University Library)