The Devil is in the Details

By Ira Mark Egdall

I know from personal experience that for a scientist or engineer working on a complex state-of-the-art project, the greatest fear is making a simple mistake which proves disastrous. So when I learned the faster than light CERN experiment may be in error due to a faulty fiber optic connection, I blurted “oh, no!”

Apparently, CERN has identified two possible issues in their faster than light neutrino experiment: 1) the faulty optical fiber which would make the neutrino speeds less than reported, and 2) an oscillator used for GPS timing which would make the neutrino speeds greater than reported.

If true, it means great embarrassment to the CERN teams, and in particular the individuals responsible for the equipment. How could they overlook such simple things? There are just so many new and untried instruments, measurement devices, and methods in such an endeavor — the odds of missing something the first time through are quite high, no matter what the “quality control” approach.

In hindsight, the results should not have been released to the public until a full evaluation of the experiment, and a repeat test confirming findings. This, of course, is most difficult in our near instantaneous, globally-connected, hyper-information age. Not to make excuses, but I find my sympathies are with the folks at CERN.

We will have to wait for further analysis to find out the total impact of these issues. Most likely, final results will confirm Einstein was right — neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed of light. But for sure, the latest issues show we are all human. And the devil is in the details.


What do you think? I welcome all comments — pro and con.

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26 thoughts on “The Devil is in the Details”

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  12. I’ve heard that the neutrinos didn’t actually travel faster than c, but this episode reveals a big problem on another level:

    What if neutrinos did travel a tiny fraction faster than c? Would it actually break the entire edifice of physics? I find that hard to swallow, considering that the concepts of particles and motion themselves may not be exact.

    1. The issue is that according to special relativity, nothing with mass can achieve the speed of light. It takes infinite energy. So if neutrinos, which are believed to have a very small mass, did travel faster than the speed of light, we would need new physics to explain it. So it is a very big deal.

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