It's all relative: superluminal neutrino discovery explained

Gran Sasso Lab Neutrino detection contraption

Update: October 17 00:00 UTC:  whether this supposed explanation out of at least 80+ different papers attempting to debunk the neutrino FTL results has a shred of truth will take a while for the physics community to sort out.  Regardless, the point of this post was to show that the frontier science journalism/communication falls victim to “viral theories” that have not been adequately tested.  In this day and age, anyone with access to a computer and the internet can engage a global audience with their cockamamie ideas on physics or perhaps climate change or medicine.  The moral of the story is that with any new discovery which may challenge conventional wisdom is to be patient and keep an open mind. — Ryan Maue.

Not so fast little neutrinos. Turns out that the discovery of superluminal or faster-than-light (FTL) neutrinos at CERN has been “explained”.  Before reading the explanation, here’s a tidbit of information that would have probably tipped off a lot of skeptics from the start:  to measure the “speed” of the neutrinos from point A to point B, the scientists used our constellation of GPS satellites in earth orbit.  Turns out Einstein’s theory of relativity comes in handy to explain those missing 60 nanoseconds over 730 km distance…

I won’t spoil the explanation any further:  from an open source Physics journal:  Faster-than-Light Neutrino Puzzle Claimed Solved by Special Relativity

— somehow I’m betting the real explanation is still out there…


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— somehow I’m betting the real explanation is still out there…
Here is another explanation out from there…
Sequel 1
The Truth About The Creation Or The Big Bang Theory Commonly Explained
For detailed explanation click on:

Brian H

Autodynamics, anyone? The commentary at that site is getting bloody …

Greg Cavanagh

The article says “the radio waves carrying the time signal must travel at the speed of light”, but is this true, satalites using radio waves I mean?

Gary Hladik

Oh crap. There goes my Alpha Centauri dream vacation!
I wonder if I can get my deposit back?


Why are they using GPS? The clocks for this experiment are so key to what you find, why not have your own? In fact, why not simply synchronize a laser along with your neutrinos?
/the answer is probably funding.


If a superluminal neutrino was a car and it turned it’s headlights on would anything happen?


Y’know, if this is the right explanation, it’s major egg on lots of faces at CERN. But top scientists never goof up that big. Right? 😉


Only one science is settled?

Love your opening line.


It’s an interesting post but this will bring the Einstein cranks and conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork as usual.
Amazing the number of bloated egos out there who reckon that if they can’t/won’t understand something, thereby conclude that that something must be wrong and that the people who do understand it must be stupid.

Ahhhhh Einstein. Never fails to impress, even now. Kinda like a good wine.


Don’t GPS location systems already compensate for relativistic effects? The GPS system functions by very precisely finding the local time, and using that to compare the travel time of the GPS signals in order to find the position. I thought that compensating for relativistic effects was necessary in order for the system to function… although it has been years since I reviewed the algorithms.

Sam Hall

Greg Cavanagh says:
October 15, 2011 at 5:32 pm
The article says “the radio waves carrying the time signal must travel at the speed of light”, but is this true, satalites using radio waves I mean?
Radio waves only travel at the speed of light in a vacuum. In the atmosphere, they are slower. How much depends on the water content. Now, the change is very small, but for very precise measurements, you need to take the speed difference into account.For example, military GPS units correct for it.


Forgetting to consider change in the frame of reference when inter-calibrating clocks would be a huge and moronic mistake, enough to fire a guy holding a research position.

The explanation seems perfect.
I wonder – were all the other objects being observed in the test slightly slower than expected?

Very interesting. I, like many of my nerdy friends, got really excited over this, thinking, “Trekkers are not believing in vain!” Ah, but we’re wrong. But you know what, it doesn’t matter, because the discovery that we may be wrong helps us improve. So, we are improving our ways of debunking Einstein’s Relativity. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this.


This is a possible explanation, not necessarily the correct one. Thet can test this relatively easily by timing a high powered laser across to GPS connected points. If this shows that light is faster than light, all well and good, if not, then this hypothesis is incorrect.
That is the way is should go, testable hypothesis, test hypothesis to destruction.

The thing is they had synchronized atomic clocks, that were used to take the actual measurements, and atomic clocks do not break sync. Once the clocks were synchronized, which would have factored in the effects of relativity because the satellites and the locator equipment take those effects into account which is how they can be accurate to 20cm on the distance.

Filipe says:
October 15, 2011 at 6:37 pm
Forgetting to consider change in the frame of reference when inter-calibrating clocks would be a huge and moronic mistake, enough to fire a guy holding a research position.
I hope not, he’d be writing cli-sci the next day.

Greg Cavanagh

Re; radio waves and their speed. I didn’t realise radio waves was in fact electromagnetic radiation, longer than infrared light. My bad.
The original article says “The result has sent a ripple of excitement through the physics community. Since then, more than 80 papers have appeared on the arXiv attempting to debunk or explain the effect.”. So this isn’t the only valid explanation. Reading through the comments on the linked page is a fascinating read in itself.
We are measuring the motion of an object through a earth sphere travelling around a sun at 107,300 km/h using multiple satellites orbiting (or geosynchronous?) around the earth, while the sun orbits around the galaxy at 220km/s, while the galaxy is moving 630km/s relative to what I don’t know.


This only explains it if E=MC² , but if the OPERA experiment is right then maybe E≈MC².

Duke C.

OPERA used two Septentrio PolaRx2e GPS receivers in common-view mode. Timing accuracy is ~2 nanoseconds. There is no way that reference frame time drift was overlooked, IMO.

Mike McMillan

Darn, I was kinda hoping for barycentrism or teleconnection.
I wouldn’t think they’d be using GPS satellites for anything other than synchronizing their atomic clocks on the ground. Too many variables need too much adjustment (sorta like GISSTemp).
The satellites orbit up around 12,500 miles, which means the radio waves travel through mostly vacuum at one speed, but a varying amount of air retardation depending on the elevation above the horizon. Besides relativistic compensation, GPS also has adjustment for the Sagnac effect, the non-constant value of c in a rotating frame.
The speed of the waves also depend on frequency. GPS uses two, but I don’t know if neutrinos have a frequency, or if they did would it make a difference since matter is transparent to them.
They can sync ground-based atomic clocks very precisely, and get much more measurement accuracy than they could with GPS satellites. We’ll need more info on how they measured to settle this science.


The GPS thing was debunked before it was even mentioned. In fact, the consensus is that the author of that article has no clue what he’s talking about.


How about Occam’s razor here. There is a compelling argument that part of Einsteins special relativity theory (and a basic one), was overlooked. Seems most likely to me.


How about Occam’s razor here.
A razor that cuts both ways.
What seems most likely to me is that someone goofed (or even that some piece of equipment is malfunctioning).
Best to just see if they can replicate it again.

anna v

For a comprehensive summary of what systematical errors may have been overlooked or missused have a look at the blog entry of Lubos Motl on possible errors.
The truth is that this is a difficult measurement, many systematic errors are involved and the complicated path of getting the numbers out may still hold unknown systematic errors that have to be explored. A main reason one has more than one expensive experiment in high energy accelerators is that independent experiments and experimenters can reduce drastically getting excited with discoveries whose statistical significance gets diminished once systematic errors are correctly included. Different experiments have different systematic errors and can test different methodologies.
The Opera researchers themselves opened the discussion with the CERN lecture and asked the physics community to send them any thoughts on what systematic errors could have been ignored, because they themselves are surprised by the results.

Jeff D

I may be reading more into this but here is my take on the neutrino.
Science has taken a huge hit with Climategate and all the other BS we have all come to know and love. The hit was deserved by they was and has done more to damage science then anything else I can think of in recent times.
Cern probably one of the most respected world institution offers up a shining torch for all to see. Really, not being sarcastic here. They proffer a scientific parody that could rock the foundations of their dearly beloved world of physics. We all at WUWT were impressed in the way it was done, asking the world to double check the facts and offer alternate explanations. They had months to check and recheck for this anomaly before the release. When it was released do you really think that they didn’t have a strong indications as to where the error was? To keep them from looking like total dweebs they did offer in the release that it was more then likely an error.
My take is that this little mini drama was a polite way to gobsmack the scientist in the world into returning to standards and methods that have allowed us to progress from the days of Galileo and the branding of heretics who disagreed was rampant.
Granted the publicity didn’t hurt seeing how the Higgs is still in hiding and yeah I am thinking its hanging out with the missing heat.
Anyways my personal take on the attempt to bring credibility back to science.

I think any problems or verifications must occur by replicating the experiment at a greater distance, if the difference remains linear to the distance between sites then there is confirmation if it increases according the the relay distance of the satellites then someone screwed up.

Morris Minor

A joke…
The barman says “We dont serve Neutrinos that travel faster than light!”
A neutrino walks into a bar………………

P.G. Sharrow

” this as caused by a GPS error” Yeh sure over only 730 kilometers.
Interesting, neutrinos arrived slightly ahead of photons. photons and neutrinos peak and decline together. WE need less B.S. ( Bad Science) and more real thought. pg

Jeff D

Forgive the typos in the above post. I should know better to try and write anything while sleep deprived. My fingers swear it was right when I typed it but after reading it my mind disagrees.

John Brookes

Patience! Any possible explanations will have to wait for peer review. Or at least for the people who know this stuff to say, “Yep, that explains it”, informally.
So maybe the explanation given is good, or maybe not. It would be exciting if something really interesting caused the result.
Is probably impossible to have a light vs neutrino race. The neutrinos go straight through the earth, so a distance of several hundred kilometres is possible. Light can only go through the atmosphere, so you’d be lucky to get 100km. The shorter distance would affect accuracy.
The problem of highly accurate clock synchronisation is not limited to measuring the speed of neutrinos and running the GPS. The “square kilometre array” (SKA) of radio telescopes has a total area of a square kilometre, but this is spread over more than 1000km. The clocks at each individual element of the SKA have to be accurately synchronised. I imagine the data analysis from SKA will be fully automated – and will make no sense at all unless the times at each location are precise.


It’s nonsense.
The GPS system takes into account corrections from both Special and General Relativity. They are using synchronised atomic clocks, and they have checked the synchronisation several times. They even got an external group in to make the checks in case it was something which had been overlooked.
I suspect it will eventually turn out that something was overlooked but it will have to be a lot more subtle than this.

I agree with one of the comments to the article which makes the point that the satellites do not have an atomic clock, the atomic clock being groundbased is static to the reference frame of CERN.
Anyway, the argument for relatively is hardly convincing: “The speed of light is a constant therefore space and time must vary”. All you need do is define a new variable “speed of light” which varies to allow space/time to be constant, and you have a Universe which is identical but where a new set of metrics vary to allow other metrics to remain the same.
In other words stating the speed of light is constant, is a definition which then requires everything else to fit. Using the same relationship, it is therefore quite possible to define something else as “constant” and have everything else (including the speed of light) vary.
This has nothing to do with this example, but personally I just prefer my definitions to be based no what makes sense in experiments rather than trying to make sense of experiments in terms of arbitrary definitions.

Daniel Vogler

Lolol! that neutrino joke cracked me up!

Ian E

‘jones says:
October 15, 2011 at 5:47 pm
If a superluminal neutrino was a car and it turned it’s headlights on would anything happen?’
Yes – a lot of greens would complain that it was a waste of energy!


Re: NW
> it’s major egg on lots of faces at CERN.
No it isn’t. This is how science is done
Physicist: I have results that go against everything I think I know. I will publish them so others can tell me where I am wrong.
Climate Scientist: I have results that go against what I think I know. I will delete them and graft on some other measurements.

The Ghost Of Big Jim Cooley

I’m still convinced that they take a shortcut through time & space using another dimension. It’s the ‘best’ explanation.

Lars P

Well, since neutrinos from supernova come at the same time as light (at least from what I read so far) it sounds only logical it was a measurement error for this experiment. Question is if they found the right explanation.

David Schofield

Morris Minor says:
October 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm
A joke…
The barman says “We dont serve Neutrinos that travel faster than light!”
A neutrino walks into a bar………………
That just HAS to appear in the next series of ‘Big Bang’! Or the last series.


jimmi_the_dalek says:
October 16, 2011 at 12:35 am
It’s nonsense.
The GPS system takes into account corrections from both Special and General Relativity.

I’m sure you’re right, but we don’t even have to know that. If it didn’t do those corrections, the (larger) margin of error would be known and documented. Anything else would be mind-bogglingly unprofessional. So would the neutrino researchers’ overlooking a known and documented margin of error in their timing.

Mike Bromley the Kurd

Scientific terminology cop: Shouldn’t it be Supraluminal? /cop


As others have pointed out this junk was debunked and carried by no-one.
I go to physics sites for physics discussions not WUWT for probably a good reason.


Tell will time…
By the way Dr Maue, what’s happened to your web pages? The 2m NH temps and the ECMWF and GFS pages seem to have gone kaput 🙁


Jeremy, are you seriously suggesting they should send a laser through 730Km of solid rock? 🙂
Anyway, it was already proven that neutrinos do not travel faster than light long before they conducted the experiment, so the entire thing had been mis-represented by the MSM anyway. They never claimed to have proven that neutrinos are faster than light, it was more of a public call for explanations/ideas on where they had taken a wrong turn – and now we know. Great.

Rats!! I was getting so close.
Timing is everything.


They have caesium clock on each site and that is their primary source of timestamps. GPS is only used to keep the two synchronized. And they even did direct comparison of these two clocks, they took a portable caesium clock, measured the Gran Sasso clock with it, then transported it to CERN and measured the CERN clock with it and these two clocks were no more than 2.5 nanoseconds off and fluctuations were on sub-nanosecond level.
GPS is used for synchronizing measurements with orders of magnitude higher accuracy (picoseconds, not nanoseconds) for long-base radiotelescope interferomentry for instance, and very successfully. No, I don’t think they made an error in this, they in fact used proven and well established technology.

Sequel 1
The Truth About The Creation Or The Big Bang Theory Commonly Explained

Terrific. As soon as a scientific theory that has been tested to extremely high accuracy gets questioned, out come the loons.

Steve from Rockwood

It does prove that Einstein was a relatively smart guy.