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Have physicists overhyped the superluminal-neutrino results?

By James Dacey

The big physics story of the week has been the news that neutrinos may not travel faster than the speed of light after all. Researchers in the OPERA collaboration, in Italy, have identified an optical fibre in their experiment that may not have been functioning correctly at the time when the measurements were made.

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After all the excitement and speculation, could this “once in a century” result be caused by nothing more than a dodgy cable? Usually when a result like this vanishes into the ether, nobody is to blame except the media for blowing the story completely out of proportion in the first place. But in this instance, it has to be said that CERN and the OPERA collaboration did hold a special press conference last September to allow their researchers to present the findings to the world’s media.

If the faulty cable does explain the result, then I fear there could be a backlash against physics and the physics community. At best it will cause minor embarrassment and gentle derision of “easily excitable” physicists. At worst, it could lead to accusations of time-wasting, and ultimately it could weaken the reputation of physics as a serious science based on critical thinking and careful experimentation.

We want to know your opinion in this week’s poll.

Have physicists overhyped the superluminal-neutrino results?


Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

There are, of course, several things to note. First is the fact that nothing has yet been proven, and the optical fibre may yet be innocent. What’s more, the OPERA researchers have always maintained that they are the result’s biggest critics. They vowed to continue to scrutinize all aspects of the experiment in search of systematic errors. So perhaps we should not be too surprised if the result does prove to be void because of something as seemingly trivial as a faulty cable.

It must also be said that the OPERA result was not the first time that a neutrino experiment had glimpsed possible superluminal speeds. In 2007 the MINOS experiment in the US recorded 473 neutrinos that appeared to have travelled from Fermilab near Chicago to a detector in northern Minnesota at speeds in excess of the speed of light. MINOS physicists reported speeds similar to that seen by OPERA, but their experimental uncertainties were much larger.

The final point to note is that the media (and, yes, that includes this website) have clearly got just as excited as the researchers. If physicists created the story, we’ve certainly made a song and dance about it and kept it in the news ever since.

Whatever you think, let us know on Facebook.

In last week’s poll, we addressed another area of physics that has been surrounded by a lot of hype in recent years – quantum computing. We asked you whether you thought that quantum computing is theoretically possible. Some 70% of respondents believe that it is, while just 4% think not. The remaining 26% chose the option of “being caught in a superposition of yes and no”.

Thank you for all of your votes and comments, and we look forward to hearing from you again in this week’s poll.

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