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Einstein Was Right All Along: ‘Faster-Than-Light’ Neutrino Was Product of Error

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on February 28, 2012

A discovery that could have upended a century of physics research was caused by a loose cable. Phew.
Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

A woman passes behind layers of the world’s largest superconducting solenoid magnet (CMS), at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland on March 22, 2007.

The universe as we know it was saved today. The instrument of its salvation, and that of the very edifice of physics itself? A fiber-optic cable in a GPS receiver at the European Center for Particle Physics (CERN) near Geneva.

The universe was first endangered back in September, when a group of CERN physicists fired a swarm of neutrinos — ghostly particles that don’t give a fig about objects in their path—through a mountain to a receiver beneath Italy’s Apennine Mountains, located 450 miles (724 km) away. Since the mountain might as well not have been there, the neutrinos should have moved at the speed of light the entire way — no slower, and definitely no faster, since, as Albert Einstein pointed out, nothing in the universe can do that.

(MORE: Was Einstein Wrong? A Faster-Than-Light Neutrino May Be Saying Yes)

But according to the Apennine receivers, the neutrinos did go faster — not by much, just by 60 nanoseconds, or .0025% of the time it would have taken a light beam to make the trip. But being a little faster than light is like being a little dead; even a tiny bit changes everything. In this case, what the experiment would have changed is the very foundation of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which is itself the foundation of more than a century of physics, and fundamental to our entire understanding of the universe. So people were concerned.

Things heated up even more when the researchers reported that, yes, they had checked their instruments and calculations before going public and no, they saw no flaws. To their credit, they invited physicists all over the world to try to replicate their findings, and many got to work. Just last weekend, reports the science site Ars Technica, no fewer than five different teams at the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) announced that they were gearing up to run tests of their own.

(PHOTOS: Inside the Large Hadron Collider)

They can stand down now. Today, the CERN team announced that the GPS system used to adjust the mechanism that timed the neutrinos’ journey had a loose fiber optic cable. When it was fixed — and its mistaken readings scrubbed from the data — the 60-nanosecond difference disappeared. So the old boy TIME chose as its Person of the Century back in 2000 was proven right again.

That did not come as much of a surprise to generations of physicists and students who have come to see Einstein’s word as law. And, according to Ars Technica, it did not come as a surprise to Sergio Bertolucci, CERN’s head of research. When asked before the glitch was discovered if he believed the neutrinos really did get to the Apennine Mountains so fast, he said he had his doubts, “because nothing in Italy arrives ahead of time.”

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