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Neutrinos Caught Speeding May Break Einstein’s Cosmic Limit

Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) -- A neutrino beam was measured as traveling faster than the speed of light, appearing to break the limit set by Albert Einstein in 1905.

The data come as a “complete surprise” and more research is needed before the results are verified, said Sergio Bertolucci, research director at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, said in an e-mailed statement today.

Neutrinos, subatomic particles fired from CERN’s Geneva base to a laboratory 730 kilometers (454 miles) away in Gran Sasso, Italy, were clocked at a velocity 20 parts per million above the speed of light, the organization said. The tests first produced unusual results last year, with scientists spending the ensuing months trying to rule out any flaw in their methods that could have skewed the numbers.

“To me as a theoretician it screams systemic error,” Roberto Trotta, an astrophysicist at Imperial College, London, said in a telephone interview. “There is probably something in the experiment that the experimenters still don’t understand.”

Scientists involved in the trial said the research has been examined closely since the results occurred.

“After many months of studies and cross checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement,” said Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern in Switzerland, who worked on the research.

Replicate Experiment

Now the task is to replicate CERN’s experiment, possibly in Japan where there are several neutrino detectors, the most complex piece of equipment required, Trotta said. Until then, it’s too early to draw conclusions, he said.

“It’s not the first time you’re getting unexpected results from neutrino experiments,” Trotta said.

CERN’s findings fit with those of a 2007 experiment by the University of Minnesota, Subir Sarkar, a physicist at Oxford University in the U.K. They also chime with data recorded in 1987, when Japanese observers detected neutrinos from an exploding star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy visible from the earth’s southern hemisphere, hours before the supernova was seen by an amateur astronomer in New Zealand, he said.

“The implications are that Einstein’s special relativity is wrong and that’s earth-shattering stuff,” Trotta said.

Still, the most likely explanation is a mistake by CERN, not Einstein, Trotta said. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Leigh Baldwin in Zurich at lbaldwin3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at acullen8@bloomberg.net.

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