Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos?

Let’s go hardcore science with today’s discussion.

“A European physics collaboration made a stunning announcement September 23, after having clocked elementary particles called neutrinos making the underground journey from a lab in Switzerland to one in Italy. The neutrinos made the trip 60 nanoseconds faster than they would have traveling at light speed, the researchers found. Faster, that is, than the rules of physics as we understand them would allow.”

Many prominent members of the scientific community have understandably expressed doubt about the announcement. But this your show, Skepchick reader.

What’s your take? Interested in particle physics? What do you think of the announcement? What of the light speed limit? See anything wrong with the experiment?


Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. September 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm —
  2. September 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm —

    I like reading science news, I’m glad they openly asked for labs to confirm/shoot down their findings, but what happened to peer review before going right to the media? I guess I’m conflicted. Being a science blogger, I love being able to hear about these things as they happen, but I can’t stand these “neutrino walks into a bar” jokes. Something has to give.

    In serio, I’m with the particle physics community, which looks upon the finding with a belly laugh. We’re dealing with something so sensitive and nuanced that it’s surprising they ever get an accurate measurement at all. The best way I’ve heard it described is that it’s like measuring the edge of the table. It’s easy at first glance, but as you drill deep down, it gets tricky. Does it have a bevel? A curved edge? Where do you put the tape measure?

    I’m excited to see what they come up with. But I’m not holding my breath for anything revolutionary.

    • September 29, 2011 at 6:23 pm —

      “what happened to peer review before going right to the media?”

      This wasn’t science by press release, they’ve known this result for quite some time, had it peer reviewed and then the press release that accompanied the article was a call to critique their work. I think the authors are not convinced that they have FTL neutrinos but have run out of ideas for where the experiment could have gone wrong.

  3. September 29, 2011 at 3:21 pm —

    Two words: Data Error

    Somewhere, some measurement or assumption is wrong. It’s difficult to see how neutrinos could do this on their own without an incredibly fundamental error in modern physics.

    Not saying that’s not possible, just that it’s very, very unlikely.

  4. September 29, 2011 at 3:23 pm —

    There’s already some interesting papers out arguing against it (see In short: The measurements may not have taken into account subtle effects associated with how long it takes something to go travel a given distance when the whole Earth is moving, and the researchers may not have properly accounted for the effects of Earth’s gravity.

    • September 29, 2011 at 6:08 pm —

      Actually they have accounted for that. The effect is just 9 orders of magnitude too small to explain the result. At least according to the guy having the talk at CERN last Friday.

  5. September 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm —

    I love this story. I especially love the skepticism the scientists themselves express about the conclusion. I’ve heard the decision to go public (after three years of due diligence) was motivated by the fact that it was probably going to leak and get blasted over the new wires anyway. By releasing all the data they essentially accomplish a peer-review in a much faster and more through but also probably more chaotic way.

    Personally I’m certain these will be shown to be tachyons from the Enterprise E.

    While I was musing about this story in the shower this morning I even came up with a brand new joke, “Yo mama so dense she reflects neutrinos.”

    • September 29, 2011 at 10:30 pm —

      Yeah, well yo mama so stupid she couldn’t take the logarithm to the base two of 65536 without a calculator! And you’re so stupid you couldn’t do it WITH a calculator!

  6. September 29, 2011 at 3:51 pm —

    There’s only one logical reaction:

    Wait until there’s independent replication of the experiment, then until it’s been completely peer reviewed and taken apart for problems. Then, and ONLY THEN, start thinking about the implications on the theory.

    You don’t start screaming “Einstein is Wrong” until you have pretty solid evidence. General Relativity being wrong qualifies as an “extraordinary claim”, which requires “extraordinary evidence”

    • September 29, 2011 at 6:33 pm —

      special relativity. General relativity is gravity.

    • September 29, 2011 at 6:35 pm —

      stupid lack of post editing.

      it’s an extraordinary claim only because special relativity is backed up by a large amount of evidence. You need your counter evidence to be stronger than the evidence for it. I always prefer that way of formulating the argument as it cuts off the true believers using that claim back on us.

  7. September 29, 2011 at 3:54 pm —

    I’m with Phil Plait: I’m not betting my dilithium on it.

    If you want something with mass to go faster than the speed of a massless particle, you have to mess with entropy. In fact, you have to completely disregard it.
    The amounts of energy that occur naturally (in supernovae, black holes, and things being generally massive out there) would mean that these things have to happen incredibly regularly, and it just doesn’t. Because faster-than-light particles with mass means particle systems that decrease in entropy, which would be easily detectable by the things spontaneously appearing in front of your face.

    So until a bunch of neutrinos decide to conspire into an object of significant mass, this is just a measurement inaccuracy.

    Oh, and neutrinos are rather antisocial creatures. They hardly ever interact with anything, not even your most sensitive measuring equipment.

    There is one other option, which is that all of physics is wrong (all the way down to thermodynamics and beyond), which is something I think we would have noticed by now if it were true…

  8. September 29, 2011 at 4:02 pm —

    “If you want something with mass to go faster than the speed of a massless particle, you have to mess with entropy. In fact, you have to completely disregard it.”

    From what I understand if a particle has imaginary mass then it can (will? must?) exceed the speed of light. Physicists hate tachyons because they make the universe unstable and ugly, but they can’t entirely discount them either. Neutrinos can shift forms. Maybe one of these forms has irrational mass? I don’t know. I think it is extremely unlikely for all the reasons Phil and my favorite physicists at the University of Nottingham have already mentioned, but no one I respect has dismissed the conclusion out of hand.

    (Physicists do talk about “imaginary mass”. Particle/wave makes my head hurt bad enough. I’m not going to think about this one at all.)

    • September 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm —

      That is more or less correct.

      I was supposed to write my master thesis on the origins of the neutrino mass, bit I have switched subject. In any case I did spend some time reading up on it. The mass of the neutrinos aren’t supposed to be there in the first place. The reason we know they do have mass is because they oscillate. I.e. the neutrinos change flavour. It is not well understood what neutrinos are and what gives them mass, and there are a number of other things that aren’t quite right about them.

      Also, this doesn’t necessarily violate any laws of Einstein. We first need to make sure these laws actually apply to these particles. After all well established laws of physics don’t usually get thrown out, we just put a limit on their validity as we did with Newton’s laws when Einstein introduced relativity.

      Lastly, supernova neutrinos as we have detected them are 3 orders of magnitude less energetic than the ones produced at CERN, so the fact that they don’t show this effect doesn’t necessarily rule out this result.

      All that said, my dilithium is also on this being a fluke. However I’ll hold my judgement until these results can be confirmed or not.

      • September 30, 2011 at 12:08 am —

        “That is more or less correct.”

        Coming from a physics person to a CS person I’ll take this as high praise.

        • September 30, 2011 at 6:18 am —


          Not that I’m an expert on relativity, but tachyons come from that theory. So when people say that FTL particles invalidate Einstein, they are at least initially wrong.

          The restriction on massless particles is that they cannot travel at any other speed than c. FTL travel however, if you want to get that from the Lorentz-factor formula, requires complex mass.

          Of course, we have a rule of thumb in physics that any physical system must be real, i.e. not complex. But details …

          • September 30, 2011 at 10:47 am

            Good comments. Some people who probably should know better (Brian Cox, Frank Close) have been saying some pretty silly things about this in the media. I’ve been suggesting that people worried that the existence of FTL propagation would invalidate SR, destroy causality, allow them to kill their ancestors etc. read these:


            It seems the horrible tachyonic kind of FTL explanation is probably ruled out anyway:

      • September 30, 2011 at 7:11 am —

        But wouldn’t the sum of all the imaginary “masses” (this is where we need waves) have to equal zero (conservation of energy)? And I’m not entirely sure how the interactions with “normal”/”real” mass would work, but I have a feeling you can’t oscillate to and from something with imaginary mass without messing with entropy, badly.

        “Also, this doesn’t necessarily violate any laws of Einstein. We first need to make sure these laws actually apply to these particles.”
        As much as this is valid, neutrinos seem to obey relativity perfectly well (so far), and it just seems unlikely that something like this has been overlooked to the point of negligence. On the other hand, neutrinos are damn elusive…

      • September 30, 2011 at 3:06 pm —

        Thank you for the dose of sanity, species8472.

        People jumping up and down around the internet claiming that the confirmation of this discovery would overturn all previous physical knowledge are off their rockers.

        Even if neutrinos can travel faster than light, that doesn’t invalidate centuries worth of other observations. It’s an exciting and interesting thing to see, and suggests further investigation. However, it does not prove anything other than exactly what the evidence shows and no further.

        Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, et cetera did not render Newton’s classical physics useless or inaccurate. The observations were perfectly relevant and correct for the things they observed. What changed is we learned that certain classes of objects that had never been properly examined before did not obey those rules. Specifically, absurdly fast moving objects and infinitesimally small objects. That’s a refinement, not a revolution — press releases notwithstanding.

        People expecting this observation, even if repeatedly confirmed, to lead to time travel and/or faster-than-light space ships had best stop holding their breath or face suffocation.

  9. September 29, 2011 at 4:07 pm —

    The bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind here.”

    A tachyon walks into a bar.

    • September 29, 2011 at 10:25 pm —

      Love it! I have no acquaintances who could understand it!

  10. September 29, 2011 at 4:29 pm —

    Hi there!

    This is the ONE thing that I don’t agree with in Tim Minchin’s “Nine minute beat poem”: “Storm”. He says:

    [i]”Does the notion that there may not be a supernatural
    So blow your hippy noodle
    That you would rather just stand in the fog
    Of your inability to Google?

    Isn’t this enough?
    Just this world?
    Just this beautiful, complex
    Wonderfully unfathomable world?”[/i]

    And yes, I see his point, and the world IS unfathomable and wonderful, and I absolutely LOVE this world that I’m in, but … NO.

    It’s NOT enough. It’s really not. I want a neutrino to have moved 60 nanoseconds faster than light. Just this once! I want to believe in the impossible. I want faster-than-light neutrinos, and Dilithium Crystals, and TARDISes, and Flux Capacitors. I want there to be life on Enceladus, and photons that know when we’re watching, and an undead cat in a box with a lethal isotope.

    But I know that this is going to turn out. Data Error. Just like Carl said up there^. It’s gonna be a big letdown. [sigh] Damn you, Tim Minchin. >:(

    • September 30, 2011 at 7:59 am —

      Yup, I’m with you in the Fox Mulder camp. I want to believe. I want to hear Scully say “… I can’t explain it.” Even if it’s proven wrong, it’s an exciting time to contemplate ‘what if… we could move mass faster than light? What if we could slow energy down to solid form? What would it look like?’

      Science like this fuels art.

      • September 30, 2011 at 12:12 pm —

        @Cr8tive: This is why Michio Kaku drives me crazy. He’s so idealistic that way. He’ll take some obscure quirk of particle physics and use it to extrapolate how humans could possibly create a matter transporter by next year, or … y’know … at least within the next 5 centuries.

        I KNOW that he’s just trying to be optimistic, but really, Kaku-San? A warp drive engine by 2015? Lightsabers by Christmas? It’s great that he’s so positive, but sometimes I think he’s just trying to get my hopes up just so he can dash them all to pieces.

        He’s like every girl I knew in college that way. ;)

  11. September 29, 2011 at 5:08 pm —

    I think it is error. I have laid out my idea of where the error came from on Ethan Siegel’s blog Starts with a Bang (which I very much recommend).

    It turns out that after they took a whole bunch of data, they found this 30 to 60 nanosecond “noise” on the sum of all the traces from the proton beam. That didn’t look very good, and they needed 1 nanosecond resolution in their measurements, so they applied a “filter” to remove the “noise”. I am pretty sure that this is the source of the “data” that indicates a faster than light velocity for some of the neutrinos, error introduced during the “filtering”.

    This treatment of the data is mentioned in Giulia Brunetti’s PhD thesis (one of of the authors of the paper). It is a big file, 32 mb.

  12. September 29, 2011 at 5:52 pm —

    More data needed.

    There are a number of things that it could be, and the least likely of them is FTL neutrinos. The basics have been covered with more thoroughness than I could do in a comment on Phil’s Bad Astronomy or Ethan’s Starts With A Bang, among other places. I expect that we’ll find that there was a data error or measurement error or an obscure variable wasn’t accounted for. Not to say that I won’t be giddy with excitement should we actually confirm the result…

    What I find most heartening is the skepticism that not only the scientific community as a whole, but the originiating scientists themselves, are displaying. They aren’t saying “We proved relativity wrong!”, they’re saying “Hey, we’ve got these results which if accurate, would prove relativity wrong. We can’t find anything wrong with the experiment, but we may well have missed something. Can everyone else check and see if you can find anything or if you get the same results?”

    Now that’s science.

  13. September 29, 2011 at 7:43 pm —

    “Oh wait! Sorry; we were holding the campus map upside-down!”

    (Could happen. ;-)

  14. September 29, 2011 at 10:35 pm —

    In 2007, Fermilab also noted a FTL discrepancy in its MINOS experiment, a neutrino beam between Batavia Il and Soudan MN. Time of flight not being integral to the measurements being made, it was not instrumented for the same precision as Gran Sasso and thus the confidence in the discrepancy of less than 2 sigma wasn’t treated as significant. Fermilab has already committed to upgrading their equipment and will likely have results next year.

    Side note: Tomorrow, Friday Sept 30 at 1400 central time, Dr Helen Edwards will turn off Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator for the last time. Fitting, as she oversaw its construction 30 years ago.

    In my 25 years at Fermi, that machine has occupied most of my work days and more than a few nights. I’ll miss it in a way though it is really showing its age.
    Still, superconducting RF is way cool!

  15. September 30, 2011 at 1:06 am —

    Another potential Fleischmann and Pons incident? Hopefully all their ducks were in a row.

    I don’t get the Einstein was wrong yelling. I hate that the media doesn’t understand the way science works (Reminds me of creationists saying evolution couldn’t be the case cause Darwin was wrong).

    • September 30, 2011 at 2:58 am —

      Yes, well Copernicus was wrong about the shape of planetary orbits but it didn’t make the heliocentric theory incorrect.
      It seems that science does this crazy thing where it can change when presented with contradictory evidence; imagine that.

  16. September 30, 2011 at 3:04 am —

    I think it’s funny how everyone’s suddenly an expert. Yes, lay person scientist, YOU will be the one who scopes out exactly where they fucked up.

    • September 30, 2011 at 6:35 am —

      Indeed. “They didn’t consider the curvature of the earth.” Um yeah, they got funny results, spent months looking for possible errors and overlooked that one.

      I’d put my money on the FTL-neutrino interpretation of the results being an error, but I don’t expect I’ll even understand the kind of error it is.

  17. September 30, 2011 at 7:43 am —

    If this is a real result, I think it shows that Neutrinos can access another spacial dimension rather than travel faster than light.

  18. September 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm —

    Has anyone considered the possibility that a wizard did it?

  19. October 2, 2011 at 6:35 am —

    I think Phil Plait has made the best observation so far: if neutrinos move faster than the speed of light as a rule by the percentage stipulated, then the neutrinos coming from that huge supernova in M101 should have got here four years ago. You can’t get around that. Also, the scientists used GPS to establish their positions, and the margin of error may account for the discrepancy of distance.

    But look, this is really not an earth-shattering discovery. Neutrinos barely exist compared to other forms of matter. If it turns out that under certain conditions, they may move slightly faster than photons, then I’m not sure what practical application that would have for us mere mortals. It’s not an enormous difference, but it does appear to be slightly faster. But there’s nothing about this data which suggests that WE could travel faster than light. There’s a possibility that this news will eventually become a big “so what” rather than a breakthrough.

  20. October 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm —

    I heard Michio Kaku on NPR the other day going on about how this means we have to re-calibrate all sorts of things, how there is a whole crop of new Nobel prizes waiting, how great it is that all of physics can be thrown in the trash by this experiment!!! And, cough, cough, how possibly an error in the distance measurement may have skewed the results. And (ignore, ignore) cosmological measurements coupled with the newly reported neutrino speed differences mean that previous measurements should have shown neutrinos to arrive years ahead of light signals, but did not.

    I begin to wonder if Michelson and Morley were the only ones to test the existence of the luminiferous ether? The Pons and Fleischmann claim did not overthrow nuclear physics. Their tests were repeated and the results not replicated. Maybe, and I know this is a crazy thought, the neutrino experiment should be repeated by others and confirmed before we burn all of the physics textbooks?

  21. October 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm —

    On the other hand, the immediate crop of geek jokes was awesome.

    A neutrino.
    Knock, knock. Who’s there?


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