Neutinos observed at faster than light velocities!?



Special Relativity works very well. Very, very well. And it is based on an axiomatic statement based on a mountain of observational, experimental evidence that the speed of light is a universal constant. And that because of that, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

So, if these results reported by the BBC this morning are true, it’s just whoa.

Whoa, man, whoa.

“Dr Ereditato and his colleagues prepare a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up 60 billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

But because the result is so unexpected and would wreak such havoc with our understanding of the Universe, the group is being particularly cautious. They have opted to put a report of their measurements online to subject them to wider scrutiny, and will hold a seminar at Cern on Friday to discuss the result.”

More here.

I really want this to verify. Love it when everything has to be reevaluated in the light of new information!

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Oh my goodness, could this be for real; something faster than the speed of light?

    Surely this news would be everywhere.

    If you do verify, please let us know, this is absolutely gripping stuff.

  2. I’m all over this Stuart. Been running up and down the halls of the Cathedral telling all the canons. They’re all shaking their bemusedly.

    Seriously. Whoa.

  3. Guy Butler says

    Wasn’t there something a while back about neutrinos and tachyon properties? For some reason this stuck in long term memory…

  4. Cindy Brower says

    Having read the Neutinos thing, my husband Myron wonders, “Does this mean that if we drive from Cern to Gran Sasso, would we actually arrive just a little bit ahead of ourselves?”

  5. There’s an error somewhere. My bet is on inaccurate GPS altitudes. My GPS varies by 90 feet in altitude while sailing. The Bad Astronomer estimates that a 20 error in position would explain the discrepancy while the neutrinos from the 1987A supernova weren’t far enough ahead of the visible light (which needs time to bubble up out of the supernova) for there to be a faster than light neutrino.

  6. @Ruidh – the idea that there’s a mistake in the calibration of the flight distance of the neutrinos seems to be consensus critique of the announcement. But these are not silly people making this announcement. If the Interwebs quickly suggest something like this, I’m sure people who’ve run the experiment 15,000 times probably thought of that too. I’d be really surprised if it was something as simple as all that.

    Yah, if true, this overturns a whole bunch of experiments that have repeatedly verified that universal speed limit. Any theory is going to have to manage an explanation of that. But this is an experimental observation. It doesn’t have to explain itself, it just has to be correct. The explanation waits for a some really smart theorist to come along.

    We’ll know soon enough – the announcement is being made formally later today.

    Apparently Fermi Lab is capable of doing the same experiment. Hopefully they’ll get it set up ASAP to see if it will verify.

  7. Paul Martin says

    Here is another account:

    I like the last section:

    No previous measurements obviously rule out the result, says Kostelecky, who has spent 25 years developing a theory, called the standard model extension, that accounts for all possible types of violations of special relativity in the context of particle physics. “If you had told me that there was a claim of faster-than-light electrons, I would be a lot more skeptical,” he says. The possibilities for neutrinos are less constrained by previous measurements, he says.

    Still, Kostelecky repeats the old adage: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Even Ereditato says that one measurement does not extraordinary evidence make.

    • Thanks Paul. Neutrinos are clearly odd little things. They change their “flavor” in flight, they have tiny mass (if they have mass) and they continue to surprise.

      I do think though that last sentence is a key one, this is going to be big deal, but only if it is verified. Overturning something this fundamental, even if only in a special class of cases, still requires a mountain of evidence.

  8. Bill Ghrist says

    Could there be some sort of quantum-like effect going on here? At quantum scales a particle can (if I understand it correctly) appear to go from one place to another without having actually been in the intermediate locations (“tunneling”). This is obviously not the same thing, but could there be something about neutrinos that allows them get from point A to point B without necessarily occupying a completely contiguous set of points in between? If so, then they would not have to travel at a speed greater than light for the “normal” part of the trip.

    MadPriest ( has some thoughts along these lines, which leads him to some interesting (and debatable) observations about the methods of science, and to further interesting thoughts about the methods of theology.

    • I suppose anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s – assuming this is really happening. It violates so much of what we’ve observed up till now that any explanation is going to have to explain everything we’ve assumed and then explain why this neutrino observation is a special case.

      It could be because there’s some sort of short range effect going on. It could be that neutrinos have some special exotic property that other sorts of matter doesn’t.

      It could signal the parousia of the Higgs…

      (I think it’s cause neutrinos are odd, but that’s just my own gut.)

      It’s not tunneling. (Or I suppose I should say I’d be stunned if it were a tunneling phenomenon.) The distance is too great. And we actually can observe tunneling – in the case of an electron moving from one energy level to another. Such behavior in the aggregate appears as like a “cross-fade” between the states. This isn’t that.

      • Bill Ghrist says

        It would be interesting to find out whether the discrepancy is linear with distance–in other words if the neutrinos travel twice as far do they arrive 120 nanoseconds too soon instead of 60 nanoseconds too soon? If not, that would seem to indicate some phenomenon other than simple speed.

  9. The likeliest explanation here is that they’ve made a measurement error. If neutrinos do travel faster than light, then the neutrino pulse from the 1987A supernova should have been detected much earlier before the light was detected than was observed. The bad Astronomer estimated that if their position was off by more than 20 feet, then the effect goes away. My GPS varies by 90 in altitude over the course of a sail around my bay.

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