Was there an error in the CERN team's timing of faster-than-light neutrinos?


Kasey-Dee Gardner poses a common concern about the world's largest particle accelerator -- is it dangerous? Check out this video to find out why particle acceleration isn't going to end life as we know it.

In September 2011, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, discovered something bewildering. They clocked a group of neutrinos fired from a particle accelerator traveling a little bit too fast. The neutrinos arrived at their destination, 450 miles (724 kilometers) away, 60 nanoseconds sooner than they should have. Sixty nanoseconds doesn't sound like much, but it's a big deal in this case -- the neutrinos should have been traveling at the speed of light.

And you know what travels faster than the speed of light? Nothing. Or so we think. That's been a cornerstone of physics since 1905, when Albert Einstein wrote the special theory of relativity. If those neutrinos were actually capable of exceeding the speed of light, well, the special theory of relativity would go out the window, and we would have to re-examine the laws of physics.

The scientists released their findings and encouraged the scientific community to scrutinize, challenge and prove or disprove the results. In February 2012, they figured out what went wrong: The GPS system used to measure the speed of the particles wasn't at the top of its game, and was malfunctioning. A loose fiber optic cable caused the measurement error, but the process CERN and the scientific community went through to verify its research is more interesting than the anticlimactic ending of a loose connection.