The faster-than-light particles detected by scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in September 2011 might not have actually been moving that fast after all, according to multiple reports on Tuesday.
The eye-popping results were apparently caused by a loose cable, as Science Insider first reported on Wednesday afternoon.
The initial results were obtained from CERN’s OPERA experiment, which involves shooting beams of uncharged particles called neutrinos from near Geneva, Switzerland through an underground particle accelerator to a detector 450 miles away in Gran Sasso, Italy, and recording the resulting effects. Results obtained over a three-year period of operation and announced in September 2011 caused a furor around the world as they showed the neutrinos traveling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light (which is approximately 186,000 miles per second), in apparent defiance of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which states that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light in a vacuum.
Science writers provided lots of skepticism and alternate theories in the wake of the OPERA team’s results, as undoing Einstein would also call into question much of our modern assumptions about particle physics and the Universe. As it turns out, those skeptics might have been on the right track, and Einstein may still be the law of the land.
As Science Insider’s Edwin Cartlidge explained:
According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis.
But a CERN spokesperson did tell the Associated Press that “scientists found a problem in the GPS system used to time the arrival of neutrino particles at an underground lab in Italy,” and that “the problem may have affected the measurements.”
However, CERN won’t know for certain whether or not the loose cables were the culprit until later this year, when further tests are conducted. CERN in November 2011 re-ran the OPERA experiment using shorter beams of neutrinos in an effort to prove its findings, finding much the same result. It is unclear whether the loose cable affected that retest as well, but based on what we know so far, that is likely.