Posted tagged ‘Physics’

Always, always, check the cables!

22/02/2012

The latest news from CERN is that the famous “Faster than light neutrinos” that filled both the scientific and popular press late last year, may be down to an experimental error after all.

The breaking news has been announced on Science Magazine’s “Science Express” board. I’ve put the link below and the note is worth reading for yourselves.

Science Express Post

However, in a nutshell, the big brew-ha-ha started when Scientists in the OPERA project sent neutrinos from the CERN lab in Geneva to a lab in Gran Sasso in Italy. Neutrinos are subatomic particles, which, due to their incredibly small mass and neutral charge, interact with practically nothing. They fly through space and whizz through the Earth and all of us with hardly any effect. They don’t even stop to wave. It was always thought that the travelled at speeds very close to but just under the speed of light , as the Special Theory of Relativity demands that nothing can travel any than light itself.

This claim, which has been tested and retested for nearly a century, was called into question when the OPERA scientists found that their neutrinos reached Gran Sasso 60 nanoseconds before (1 billionth of a minute) they should do travelling if light speed. These scientists knew that this would be a major upset to one of the fundamental theories of modern physics, and though scientists are always open-minded to new (reasonable) ideas, you don’t overturn Einstein unless you are really, really sure. So they repeated the experiment, over 3000 times, and after finding the same result, threw their findings out to the scientific community. They hoped, in a wonderful example of how science should be done, that a much larger number of eyes on the data and minds on the problem may see anything they overlooked.

Now the problem may have been spotted (may, I said, MAY, more data is needed). In a fashion haunting familiar to anyone working a in a lab the problem may be the result of a faulty cable. In this case, an optical fibre in the GPS system used to accurately track the distance between the two stations and keep the timing of the neutrinos flight. Seems data was passing through this cable faster than it was believed to be. How much faster, you say? Well, about 60 seconds, funnily enough.

Though such nanosecond precision in data transmission isn’t a requirement in my line of work, it just reinforces an important lab.life lesson. Always check the cables.