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Surprising Science

That Time Neutrinos Moved Faster Than Light. Major Uh-Oh.

Michio Kaku tells the story of one super-scary mistake in physics and reminds us how hard it is to get science right.

Science is hard, especially when you’re out on the edges of the unknown. Mistakes get made, and usually corrected over time. But no one expected this.

Late in the winter of 2011, Antonio Ereditato, leader of the OPERA collaboration studying neutrino physics, received a phone call from a man analyzing data from an experiment being conducted in CERN’s tunnel. Ereditato recalls, “He said, ‘I see something strange,’” which was an understatement considering what he saw: Neutrinos seemed to have traveled CERN’s 454-mile tunnel so fast they’d arrived at the target detector 60.7 nanosecondsfaster than light could.

That’s not supposed to be possible—Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity states that no object with mass can travel faster than light. It was, as physicist Ransom Stephens put it in Nautilus, “An atom bomb in the heart of our understanding of the universe.”

It seems like Michio Kaku wasn’t that worried. More like amused.

Ironically, as Kaku points out, the GPS used to calibrate OPERA’s measurements is itself based on relativity, so in a way, relativity was disproving itself, kind of a tipoff. The video above is from 2012. Since that time, it’s been confirmed by multiple authorities that OPERA’s result was incorrect.

You can get down off the ledges now, Science.

Headline image by AFP


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