GPS and Neutrinos

In 2011 some scientists on the OPERA team announced that they had found some particles (called neutrinos) that appeared to travel at a speed that was faster than the speed of light. Since we believe that nothing can travel faster than light, this was a bit of a surprise. Most people didn’t believe it and assumed there was a mistake. It turned out that, yes indeed, there was a mistake. I only recently read that the mistake involved GPS.

Other scientists tried to replicate the results, and were unable to. This showed that something was wrong with the equipment that the OPERA team was using. The team tested all their equipment and finally narrowed the mistake down to two possible things. This was the scientific method in action. And it worked, which is great.

Neutrinos are supposed to travel at the speed of light, which is 299,792 km per second. In order to measure speeds this fast we need a very accurate clock. These scientists used the clocks in GPS satellites for their clock. I wrote before how how pervasive GPS has become all over the world, because of their clocks. This is just another example. There was a similar post yesterday on the BBC about what would happen if satellites stopped working.

Anyway, it seems that one of the problems was that a certain cable has to be fitted with exactly the correct orientation. If the orientation is changed, a different time is recorded. This seems quite a subtle error, in fairness. The other error is linked to the oscillator used to produce the time-stamps in between the GPS synchronizations.

The whole event caused a lot of tension in the OPERA team and some team members resigned.


One thought on “GPS and Neutrinos

  1. What I took out of the episode was that, even in such a fantastically sophisticated experiment, it wasn’t long until a rival group challenged their result. This ‘justification’ 9or lack of) is the real strength of science, and is often overlooked by those who question the ultimate reliabiity of scientific knowledge.

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