Deep inside the Gran Sasso mountain, within the Monti della Laga range in central Italy, three large chambers of around 36,000m3 each are hewn out of the rock, filled with machinery and inhabited by around 750 busy workers. This is the Gran Sasso National Laboratory for the study of particle physics, particle astrophysics and nuclear astrophysics, and the location of one of the most high-profile experimental results of the last century.
The Gran Sasso laboratory is a strange and unreal sight, but its extraordinary environment is absolutely crucial to the experiments taking place inside. The scientists who work there study neutrinos, subatomic particles that form in nuclear reactions inside the Sun and eventually make their way through the Solar System to reach Earth. Neutrinos are so tiny, and their interactions with each other and the environment so subtle, that they can only be distinguished when the “noise” of everyday background radiation is blocked out. The 1400m of mountain rock surrounding the Gran Sasso experiments (and, crucially, the constitution of the rock, which is unusually low in radioactive isotopes) achieves this better than any other location in the world.
In September this year, the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus) research team at Gran Sasso made a startling series of measurements during an experiment to gauge how quickly neutrinos covered a 730km distance. Incredibly, it seemed that the neutrinos were travelling faster than the speed of light which, according to our current understanding of physics, should not be possible!
The speed of light as a constant and universal limit to how fast particles can travel is a concept familiar even to the non-scientist; it is a beguilingly simple idea, despite the complexity of the proofs and calculations involved. The potential significance of the Gran Sasso measurements has therefore readily captured the attention of the world’s media and the public at large, even though we may not all have the scientific background to understand the exact repercussions.
Despite widespread fascination with what this result could mean for concepts of space, time and even causality, even the physicists who have devoted several years to this work are sceptical about whether the measurements are all they seem. A general rule-of-thumb used by scientists when evaluating new research is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the detection of faster-than-light travel is certainly an extraordinary claim! In any case, the results of one research group, however prestigious, are never sufficient grounds for claiming a discovery until they have been reproduced elsewhere.
The most plausible explanation of the Gran Sasso result, acknowledged both by the OPERA team and the wider scientific community, is experimental error. Identifying the error, however, is more difficult than one might imagine. This was not one freak result; three years of carefully controlled experiments yielded the same data, with a margin of error rigorously calculated as plus or minus 10 billionths of a second. (To put this in perspective, the speed of the neutrinos was measured as 60 billionths of a second faster than the speed of light). Despite repeated attempts to prove their own measurements wrong, OPERA are stuck with their extraordinary data.
The error, assuming there is an error, must therefore be systematic. Systematic errors are a scientist’s nightmare; they stem from an integral flaw in an experimental design which impacts results in exactly the same way each time the experiment is run. This makes it very tricky even to realise a systematic error exists, let alone to identify and correct for it. This is the task that the OPERA team face, and they have now thrown the problem open to the wider scientific community. Their hope is that if the results are wrong, they may at least be able to discover how and why the inaccuracy arose, so that it can be compensated for in future experiments. Until then, there will remain questions over whether measurements taken with this apparatus and under these conditions can be trusted. Of course there remains the possibility that the error cannot be found because it does not exist! Physics may be revolutionised by the Gran Sasso experiment after all…
The next stage is attempts by independent research groups to either replicate the neutrino results, or to conclusively undermine them. The study of neutrinos is a truly international enterprise involving specialists from all over the world: the measurements taken in Gran Sasso, Italy – in a facility where scientists hail from twenty-two different countries – were announced at CERN, the pan-European laboratory located in Switzerland, and the foremost researchers testing the results are likely to be based in the US (the Minos experiment) and Japan (the T2K facility).
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