Recently resigned OPERA spokesperson Antonio Ereditato (second from the left) at CERN in 2011. (Courtesy: Maximilien Brice/CERN)
By Tushna Commissariat
Late afternoon on a Friday is perhaps not the best time to break important news, but the OPERA collaboration in Italy has got newsrooms buzzing with the resignation of its spokesperson Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern in Switzerland. Although Reuters was the first to break the story, details were scant, with no comments from OPERA and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Italy saying only that it “took note” of his resignation. The OPERA collaboration, based at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy, hit the headlines last September when it claimed that it had observed neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light as they travelled the 730 km from CERN to the Italian lab. However, after having scrutinized all aspects of the experiment in a search of systematic errors, it was discovered that a faulty cable and one other potential source of error could explain the strange results.
When I attempted to reach the OPERA collaboration at the Gran Sasso lab, a lone student answered the phone and politely informed me that he was the only one there. A phone call to the CERN press office proved even more interesting, as the press officer who answered (she refused to give me her name) said that CERN had no comment to make about the resignation as the OPERA experiment is “not a CERN collaboration” and that it “only sends [the researchers] a beam of neutrinos”. This is quite a big change from last year, when CERN seemingly enjoyed the publicity of the headlines crediting it with the discovery.
A call to the INFN press office finally seemed to provide some answers, as a helpful press officer gave me a comment from Antonio Masiero, vice president at the INFN. “Acknowledging the resignation of Professor Antonio Ereditato, spokesperson of the Opera experiment, the INFN hopes that the collaboration will find its unity and new leadership again in pursuing its primary objective, that of observing [neutrino oscillations] starting with μ-type neutrinos coming from CERN. We would like to remind you, as reported in the meeting held at the INFN Gran Sasso laboratory last Wednesday, further and definitive measurements of the speed of neutrinos will be done at Gran Sasso with four experiments, including OPERA, when CERN will send a new neutrino bunched beam at the end of April,” he says.
My colleague James Dacey spoke to Luca Stanco, leader of the OPERA group at the University of Padovo, who gave us some insights into what really led to Ereditato’s resignation. According to Stanco, Ereditato resigned following a vote of no-confidence. Stanco told physicsworld.com that the vote took place last night, with 55% of the collaboration opting for a vote of no-confidence in their spokesperson. He said that while a formal motion of no-confidence required 67% of votes, it seems that Ereditato decided that resignation was the correct thing to do. The reason for the lack of confidence, Stanco says, was that many in the collaboration felt that Ereditato had failed to be sufficiently cautious when discussing the superluminal-neutrino results, having failed to make it clear that these were preliminary. “I was against the way things were communicated,” Stanco says. “In front of the media, we had a duty to be more careful with our language.” Stanco says that it will now take a few weeks to find a new spokesperson. “We have to carry on. We are physicists and we have a duty to continue working on this as OPERA represents a huge investment,” he says.
Undoubtedly, more news and official comments about the resignation will follow in the days to come, but for now it seems that the OPERA researchers are keen to move on, with the upcoming run in May hopefully allowing them to explain their superluminal results once and for all.