… Speed claim baffles CERN theoryfest
Even a meeting of elite minds at Europe’s top particle physics lab couldn’t do it: reconciling neutrinos that appear to break the cosmic speed limit with the laws of physics is still beyond us. However, a paper on the speeding neutrinos has been accepted for publication and the first preliminary results from a comparable experiment are out.
“For the moment, there is no explanation that works,” says physicist Ignatios Antoniadis, who helped to organise the meeting at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, last Friday. It was three weeks to the day after physicists in the OPERA collaboration at Gran Sasso, Italy, announced that neutrinos travelling from CERN had apparently moved faster than light.
Frantic calculation, speculation and debate have followed in the wake of the announcement. The meeting’s goal was to “review the situation and discuss whether it is possible [that neutrinos broke the speed of light]” , says Antoniadis.
Physical Review Letters has agreed to publish the paper, making it the first scientific journal to accept work on the OPERA result.
In the paper, Glashow and Cohen point out that if neutrinos can travel faster than light, then when they do so they should sometimes radiate an electron paired with its antimatter equivalent – a positron – through a process called Cerenkov radiation, which is analogous to a sonic boom. Each electron-positron pair should carry away a large chunk of the neutrinos’ energy: Cohen and Glashow calculated that at the end of the experiment, the neutrinos should have had energies no higher than about 12 gigaelectronvolts. But OPERA saw plenty of neutrinos with energies upwards of 40 GeV.
“It doesn’t correspond to the energies measured at all,” says CERN physicist Christophe Grojean.
Another strike against the speedy neutrinos comes from the fact that neutrinos are linked to certain other particles – electrons, muons and tau particles – via the weak nuclear force. Because of that link, neutrinos can’t travel faster than light unless electrons do too – although electrons needn’t travel as fast as the neutrinos.
CERN physicist Gian Giudice, who spoke at the seminar, and colleagues looked into what would happen if electrons travelled faster than light by one part in 100,000,000, a speed consistent with the OPERA neutrino measurement. Such speedy electrons should emit a cone of Cerenkov radiation in empty space – but previous experiments show that they don’t.
The only way out, theorists at the meeting decided, was to break another supposedly fundamental law of nature – the conservation of energy. But that suggestion seems even more ludicrous than breaking the speed of light.
“At the moment, there is no concrete model that really avoids all these theoretical constraints,” Grojean says. “That’s why it’s so interesting. We cannot explain it in terms of known physics.”
Despite the care the OPERA researchers took to rule out errors in the measurement, that possibility remains. Another unpublished paper on the arxiv.org physics preprint server has attracted attention with its explanation. Ronald van Elburg at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has calculated that special relativity could have messed up the synchronisation of the clocks at CERN and Gran Sasso. This would make neutrinos appear to arrive 64 nanoseconds early – almost exactly what the OPERA experiment observed.
If this argument holds up, rather than breaking Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the faster-than-light neutrinos would actually end up reaffirming it. But it’s unclear whether the result has legs. “In general, the feeling of theorists is that one should repeat the experiment,” Antoniadis says.
CERN plans to provide a new neutrino beam to do this. Meanwhile, the first glimpses from another detector at the Gran Sasso laboratory don’t look good for the faster-than-light hypothesis. An experiment there called ICARUS (Imaging Cosmic And Rare Underground Signals) has been catching neutrinos travelling from CERN since last year. The 100 or so it has seen do not seem to travel faster than light. ICARUS also doesn’t see any evidence of the Cerenkov-like radiation Glashow and Cohen predicted.
The case is far from closed, however. “For the moment, we don’t have an answer,” Antoniadis says. “That doesn’t mean an answer doesn’t exist.”