The Data That Threatened to Break Physics


Ransom Stephens in Nautilus (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images):

Antonio Ereditato insists that our interview be carried out through Skype with both cameras on. Just the other side of middle age, his salt-and-pepper hair frames wide open eyes and a chiseled chin. He smiles easily and his gaze captures your attention like a spotlight. An Italian accent adds extra vowels to the end of his words.

We talk for 15 minutes before he agrees to an on-the-record interview. He tells me he has no desire to engage journalists who might subvert his words into a sensational, insincere story. The reason he agreed to Skype with me is because I am not a journalist, but a physicist and writer who spent 13 years in the trenches of experimental particle physics. And he has no tolerance for entering another debate about behavior rather than science. But finally, he says, “Okay. I’ve looked in your eyes. I trust you. Maybe that is my problem. Maybe I trust too easily, but I trust you.” He laughs and leans back in his chair with his arms out and open.

Ereditato is the former leader of the 160 physicists from 13 countries that compose the OPERA collaboration, whose goal is to study neutrino physics. It was first proposed in 2000, and Ereditato led it from 2008 to 2012. Then in late winter of 2011, the impossible seemed to happen. “The guy who is looking at the data calls me,” Ereditato tells me from my computer screen. “He says, ‘I see something strange.’ ” What he saw was evidence that neutrinos traveled through 454 miles of Earth’s crust, from Switzerland to Italy—which they are supposed to do—at such a high speed that they arrived 60.7 nanoseconds faster than light could travel that distance in outer space—which should have been impossible.

Over the last century, Einstein’s observation that no massive object can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, enshrined in his theory of special relativity, has become a keystone of how we understand the universe. If the OPERA measurement was correct, it would mark the first-ever violation of that theory: An atom bomb in the heart of our understanding of the universe.

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