If you’re tracking the interesting news from CERN on neutrinos moving slightly faster than the speed of light, be advised that there is an upcoming CERN webcast on the matter at 1400 UTC later today (the 23rd). Meanwhile, evidence that the story is making waves is not hard to find. I woke up to find that my local newspaper had a headline — “Scientists Find Signs of Particles Faster than Light” — on the front page. This was Dennis Overbye’s story, which originally ran in the New York Times, but everyone from the BBC to Science Now is hot on the trail of this one.

The basics are these: A team of European physicists has measured neutrinos moving between the particle accelerator at CERN to the facility beneath the Gran Sasso in Italy — about 725 kilometers — at a speed about 60 nanoseconds faster that it would have taken light to make the journey. The measurement is about 0.0025 percent (2.5 parts in a hundred thousand) greater than the speed of light, a tiny deviation, but one of obvious significance if confirmed. The results are being reported by OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus), a group led by physicist Antonio Ereditato (University of Bern).

Neutrinos are nearly massless subatomic particles that definitely should not, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, be able to travel faster than light, which accounts for the explosion of interest. According to this account in Science Now, the OPERA team measured roughly 16,000 neutrinos that made the trip from CERN to the detector, and Ereditato is quoted as saying that the measurement itself is straightforward: “We measure the distance and we measure the time, and we take the ratio to get the velocity, just as you learned to do in high school.” The measurement has an uncertainty of 10 nanoseconds.

It’s hard to do any better than Ereditato himself when bringing caution to these findings. Let me quote the Science Now story again:

…even Ereditato says it’s way too early to declare relativity wrong. “I would never say that,” he says. Rather, OPERA researchers are simply presenting a curious result that they cannot explain and asking the community to scrutinize it. “We are forced to say something,” he says. “We could not sweep it under the carpet because that would be dishonest.”

And the BBC quotes Ereditato to this effect: “My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing. Then I would be relieved.” One reason for the relief would be that other attempts to measure neutrino speeds have come up with results consistent with the speed of light. Is it possible there was a systematic error in the OPERA analysis that gives the appearance of neutrinos moving faster than light? The timing is obviously exquisitely precise and critical for these results, and a host of possibilities will now be investigated.

This paragraph from a NatureNews story is to the point:

At least one other experiment has seen a similar effect before, albeit with a much lower confidence level. In 2007, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) experiment in Minnesota saw neutrinos from the particle-physics facility Fermilab in Illinois arriving slightly ahead of schedule. At the time, the MINOS team downplayed the result, in part because there was too much uncertainty in the detector’s exact position to be sure of its significance, says Jenny Thomas, a spokeswoman for the experiment. Thomas says that MINOS was already planning more accurate follow-up experiments before the latest OPERA result. “I’m hoping that we could get that going and make a measurement in a year or two,” she says.

Unusual results are wonderful things, particularly when handled responsibly. The OPERA team is making no extravagant claims. It is simply putting before the scientific community a finding that even Ereditato calls a ‘crazy result,’ the idea being that the community can bring further resources to bear to figure out whether this result can be confirmed. Both the currently inactive T2K experiment in Japan, which directs neutrinos from its facility to a detector 295 kilometers away, and a neutrino experiment at Fermilab may be able to run tests to confirm or reject OPERA’s result. A confirmation would be, as CERN physicist Alvaro de Rujula says, ‘flabbergasting,’ but one way or another, going to work on these findings is going to take time, and patience.

The paper “Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam” is now up on the arXiv server (preprint).

Addendum: For an excellent backgrounder on neutrino detection and the latest measurements, replete with useful visuals, see Starts With a Bang. Thanks to @caleb_scharf for the tip.

And this comment from a new Athena Andreadis post is quite interesting:

If it proves true, it won’t give us hyperdrives nor invalidate relativity. What it will do is place relativity in an even larger frame, as Eisteinian theory did to its Newtonian counterpart. It may also (finally!) give us a way to experimentally test string theory… and, just maybe, open the path to creating a fast information transmitter like the Hainish ansible, proving that “soft” SF writers like Le Guin may be better predictors of the future than the sciency practitioners of “hard” SF.