For months now there has been a rather over-excited public belief that a bunch of scientists in Italy received some neutrons from CERN a bit sooner than they should have.
The OPERA experimental results reported late last year – i.e. that neutrinos travelled faster than light, and therefore broke physics as we know it – made huge news, and generated a wave of speculation and outright blathering from vast swathes of the internet. No matter how many times scientists everywhere said ‘none of us believe it’s true, we’re trying to find the error’, there was still the misleading “faster-than-light” moniker being bandied about, everywhere from Nature to the Guardian (although the BBC did a pretty stand-up job of sitting on the fence).
To the complete lack of surprise across the scientific community, the probable error has been found (subject to confirmation). A loose optic fibre that helped synchronise the atomic clocks which timed the experiment was found to be poorly connected. If this were a 100 m sprint, basically the guy firing the gun, and the guy controlling the stopwatch were a few billionths of a second out from each other. Insignificant for us lumbering apes, rather more serious for particles travelling 299,792,458 m/s, when the total trip is only 730,000 m, with a travel time of 2.4 microseconds, and the difference between the expected and measured arrival times was just 60 billionths of a second (0.000,000,060 seconds) .
So, three cheers for science, a slap on the back to the CERN and Gran Sasso scientists for generating some interest in fundamental science and showing that none of us are infallible, and most of all, a resounding sigh of relief that we didn’t break physics. Good work humanity, carry on.