The finding last month that neutrinos travel faster than light whipped up frenzied debate in scientific circles by virtue of its potential to knock Einstein's special theory of relativity from the high pedestal.
The finding by physicists at the CERN and the Gran Sasso facility in Italy was called into question immediately. It was too big a finding to be swallowed at one go.
After weeks of deep digging, some theories about what might have gone wrong in the CERN experiment have surfaced. The consensus is that the CERN experiment that proved neutrinos traveled faster than light had fundamental flaws.
Physicists at the Gran Sasso facility in central Italy said last month their experiments showed that subatomic particles known as neutrinos breached the speed of light. The theory, if proved right, would have negated the scientific understanding that nothing in the universe is faster than light and open up the possibility of time travel.
The researchers said their experiments, called OPERA, showed that neutrinos traveled from the particle accelerator at the CERN facility near Geneva to the Gran Sasso facility in Italy at a speed marginally higher than light. The subatomic particles took 60 billionths of a second, or 60 nanoseconds, less than what a light beam would take to race through the distance of about 450 miles. The experiment had an error margin of plus or minus 10 billionths of a second, according to scientists.
Several physicists, including some who have won the Nobel Prize, immediately expressed doubts about the veracity of the new finding that subatomic particles called neutrinos can travel faster than light. They say the new claim is incorrect and that Einstein's theory of special relativity will remain uncontested.
Physics Nobel Prize winner in 2006, George Smoot, said he was willing to bet money that it's not correct. He added: There are many distortions in physics. You have to have a very high standard to see if something is truly correct.
Voices of dissent gained momentum in the following weeks, leading to apparent consensus that it was too early to doubt the worth of Einstein's theory.
But no plausible explanation emerged for what could have actually gone wrong with the Gran Sasso experiment. It was painful not to notice that the physicists had conducted more than 15,000 experiments to conclude that neutrinos consistently breached the speed of light.
How could thousands of tests return a wrong value consistently? Or, if there was a fundamental error in making this assessment, what was that error after all?
There is one prominent theory. According to Ronald van Elburg from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the research team forgot to take into account the time distortions introduced by the GPS satellites in orbit that were used to synchronize the clocks at Gran Sasso and CERN.
He says the team seems to have forgotten to take into account the time it takes for the GPS signal to travel to the sensors on the Earth from the orbiting satellites. His calculations figure that the delay for the signal to reach the Earth from the satellites amounts to about 32 nanoseconds on each end of the experiment, making for a total time delay of 64 nanoseconds. That is almost the exact amount of time that Gran Sasso showed the neutrinos arriving early.
For this theory to hold good, it must be accepted that the CERN physicists erred in fixing the right frame of reference. It is unbelievable that such a mistake would happen at this level.
Could that mean there are only two uneasy choices to make? Either the scientists got it awfully wrong, or the neutrinos do travel faster than light.