Are You Smarter Than an Italian Education Minister?

You are if you read my previous post about neutrinos, or really any account of the neutrino experiment that has been published in any of the newspapers I’ve seen

After all, I bet even those of you that didn’t have time for my 3,500 word treatise on the subject picked up on the fact that the scientists were just watching these particles do their thing, measuring their speed as they go about their business, only to discover that this speed was larger than the speed of light. I bet you also know by now that neutrinos can travel through the earth itself, because they’re so unwilling to interact with other matter.  If you’re really on the ball you might even know that this is considered a perk: Since neutrinos alone possess this extreme earth-tunneling power, a detector buried deep underground can be certain it’s seeing almost exclusively the neutrinos it wants to see, and not something else like a pion or a cosmic ray.

On the other hand, as some of my Italian friends have pointed out to me, anyone who got their news exclusively from Italian Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini might have a different impression. Here‘s her official statement on the subject, which I would translate as follows:


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Faster Than a Speeding Photon?

So all the buzz in the physics department yesterday was this announcement by organizers of an experiment called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) that they’ve measured the speed of the neutrinos being produced at LHC particle accelerator in Europe– and that the speed is larger than the speed of light, Einstein’s famous speed limit for the universe. The one advocated by the bumper sticker above.

For some reason, the story really seems to have taken root outside the scientific community as well; it was featured prominently on a Washington Post, my family tells me it made the front page of the Denver Post, and to top it all off, an acquaintance I know only indirectly posted about it on my Facebook wall– a sign of total societal penetration if ever there was one. I don’t know quite why this bit of news has had such an impact, but I would guess it’s because the story lives in a happy place between being intriguingly futuristic and prohibitively complex. Lots of folks are aware of the “cosmic speed limit,” and the idea of someone breaking it (even someone subatomic!) is the kind of thing that would be right at home in an episode of Star Trek. Indeed, science fiction writers have made such prolific use of the concept of a “tachyon” (a blanket term for hypothetical particles that might travel faster than the speed of light) that there’s an entire wikipedia page devoted to their appearances in popular fiction.

But unfortunately, the apparent simplicity of the concept seems to have lulled the media into a false sense of security, with the result that many of the mainstream articles fail to give any of the interesting details, the context, or the implications, to the point that many of them could just be replaced with an extended headline reading “Scientists See Particles Moving Faster Than Light; Einstein Wrong? Carl Sagan Once Said Something About Extraordinary Claims.”

They aren’t all so bad. This piece from ScienceNow, reprinted in Wired, is the best I’ve seen in popular press, and not just because it quotes a professor I currently work for . And of course one can always turn to the actual publication of the result. But just in case your taste for detail falls somewhere between the two, I’d like to offer some clarifying information about the context of this little puzzle.

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