“Unfortunately, in our increasingly technological world we can expect more sensational errors like the one that, however briefly, challenged the foundation of modern science.”
CUNY theoretical physicist Michio Kaku writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The case against Einstein is crumbling. A series of new experiment results flatly contradict the sensational announcement last year that something could—and indeed had—traveled faster than light. Physicists around the world are, for reasons I’ll explain, breathing a sigh of relief.
Last September a group of physicists fired a beam of subatomic particles called neutrinos from the CERN particle accelerator, near Geneva, to Italy. They were left gasping for breath when the neutrinos apparently outraced a beam of light by a distance of 60 feet over a distance of 454 miles, violating Einstein’s famous dictum that nothing can travel faster than light.
Headlines blared that Einstein, an iconic figure in science for a century, was finally proven wrong. The world of physics was thrown into turmoil because the bedrock of modern physics would disintegrate if that were true. My research is in string theory, for example, which extends Einstein’s theory of relativity. So if his theory is wrong, my own life’s work would go out the window as well.
The first cracks in this claim began to emerge last month, with clear signs that the experimental apparatus at CERN was miscalibrated. In a race, everything depends crucially on measuring two things: knowing the length of the track, and synchronizing two watches at the starting point and finish line. Apparently, there were crucial errors in both measurements.
First, the clocks in Switzerland and Italy were synchronized by comparing them to a third clock, a carefully calibrated oscillator. Now it appears that the oscillator itself may have been miscalibrated, so the two clocks were not beating in step.
Second, the distance between Switzerland and Italy has to be known to incredible precision for the experiment to be accurate. The only device capable of doing this is the global positioning system. But apparently the fiber optic cable that links the GPS satellite to a master clock may have been loose, which could have introduced errors in measurement. These two errors could easily have increased the speed of neutrinos by 20 parts per million, thereby explaining the discrepancy.
But the floodgates finally burst open last week when a second group of physicists announced that they redid the entire experiment and found that Einstein was correct all along: Their neutrinos traveled at precisely the speed of light, not faster or slower…