Was Einstein wrong? Probably not.

XKCD's take on public understanding of science

Ok, this is where my profile picture becomes relevant(-ish)

You may have read in the news today that Einstein was wrong. This is due to people drawing conclusions without enough information (it’s not the first time either, see physicists try to destroy Earth with black hole, Higgs boson found, and other such news stories). Luckily though, not everyone out there has jumped on the bandwagon.

The result published by CERN today (the paper in question is here) was from an experiment involving a very very (very) small particle called a neutrino which barely interacts matter making it tough to detect. They’re extremely interesting to physicists and neutrino physics has greatly expanded over the last decade.

The experiment was designed to measure the speed of neutrinos (these things matter to physicists) and involved firing a beam of them from CERN in Geneva to the OPERA detector in Italy.

The surprising thing was that the neutrinos appeared to be travelling faster than light (ftl) going against Einstein’s theory of relativity, which explains everything bigger than an atoms movement (to an extent) by having the speed of light as a sort of physical speed limit (it turns out space and time bend when you get faster!). Some have used this neutrino result to say Einstein was wrong. This is bad science.

The first thing to note is that more often than not, an astounding result like this is due to a systematic error, i.e. something in the experiment that causes an inaccurate result, though by this stage most errors have been ruled out.

Secondly, if the result is accurate and repeatable it doesn’t necessarily mean Einstein was wrong. For starters, Einstein’s relativity has worked for nearly a century, and since it’s inclusion into physics it has explained many many physical phenomena very well. It might just be that neutrinos have slightly different rules!

With respect to the former case, all the previous data on neutrino speeds suggests an erroneous result, in this post the data from an observation of light and neutrinos arriving from a supernova is compared with what the data would have been if the neutrinos were travelling ftl.

The results were that they couldn’t have been travelling at the speeds detected at OPERA. Errors are of great importance in experimental physics as they are very easy to make and very hard to find. When I did my first undergraduate lab it was explained that working out the error on an experiment often takes longer than the experiment itself, so this is a distinct possibility. You can find a more in depth piece about the errors here.

If the latter case is true however, what we will have is a new neutrino physics, or maybe some alterations to the Higgs model which is not quite an entirely new physics but still very exciting. Due to the nature of physics, this will change a lot of modern physics. The main impact though is on causality (via relativity), Surib Sarkar at Oxford University had this to say about it’s impact on causality:

“The constancy of the speed of light essentially underpins our understanding of space and time and causality, which is the fact that cause comes before effect.”

The upshot of this is we can no longer eliminate paradoxes that exist without relativity. Which would cause more problems.

All in all, it’s likely that there is some explanation for the result that doesn’t change our physics, but if there isn’t, physicists are going to have a lot of work to do!

But in the spirit of scientific scepticism, I could be wrong and so too could Einstein. But it’s unlikely..

, , , , ,

  • It’s ironic when there was an article very recently disputing Einstein’s priority of claim over e=MC2.

  • JR

    I like the theory that the nutreno’s took a shortcut through another dimension, so didn’t infact break the speed of light.

  • God moves in mysterious ways.

  • Pete Baker


    I think you might have intended to quote this line from Surib Sarkar?

    “Cause cannot come after effect and that is absolutely fundamental to our construction of the physical universe. If we do not have causality, we are buggered.”

    And Prof Matt Strassler’s initial thoughts

    A last remark for the night: think about what it is like to be an experimentalist making a revolutionary statement of this magnitude. Talk about sticking your neck out! This result either means a Nobel Prize or international embarrassment — perhaps even ridicule if a serious mistake was made; there’s no middle ground. The combination of excitement, hope, and terror must be unlike anything most of us will ever experience. I cannot imagine how any of them have slept for days; I cannot imagine that they will sleep well for months, until a second experiment reports, “We have measured the speed of neutrinos, and we confirm…”

    He’s also posted some interesting preliminary comments on the results from the OPERA experiment.

  • Rory Carr

    So what even if Einstein was “wrong”?

    Galileo was wrong too and Kepler and Tiho Brahe (we’re still having a little infuriating difficulty with that rascal Newton and his “gravity” nonsense. Gravity-schmavity ! We’ll get him one of these days.)

    It is not about being “right” or “wrong”. It is about searching for answers. Science and those who honestly practice its methodology without resorting to pressure or corruption is merely a road advancing human knowledge and each discovery thereon a signpost to the next waystop. Einstein wrote a most beautiful signpost and that is what matters. If it happens that for a time it led us to wander off a straight line then be thankful for all the discoveries we found in the byways.

  • Rory Carr


    Apologies for the awkward construction of my”Science and those who honestly practice it…” sentence. I got carried away by my own imagery.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    At least these guys have the guts to hold their hands up and say “We have no idea what’s going on here, can someone else check this out?”

    For something that is fairly pure in its goals, there’s a surprising amount of garbage published.

    I’m basically discovering that as I’m finishing my PhD into various organic lasers. My competitors bum about how many new materials they’ve characterised and talk about some great applications they have as a result of their properties.

    I’m publishing less, as I’m slowly trying to build up some evidence as to why all the descriptions that are published are ALL done incorrectly. Its extremely demoralising and unlikely to get even a tacid acknowledgement that I might be onto something as it’ll get up so many peoples noses that I’m implying they are talking sXXXe.

    i agree with some of the sentiments above that people need to be humble when doing research. Its not supposed to be about building up an ego and putting down challenges. If it was we mightened have got past the wheel.

  • Charlie,
    You’re right. This result will not be accepted until other experimentalists confirm it.

  • Neutrino goes into a bar and orders a pint. How much?, it says. Barman replies, “For you, no charge”.

  • sonofstrongbow

    This is an old experiment. A beam of neutrinos was fired between the dreary steeples some time ago. The light is yet to arrive.

  • Public reporting of science sometimes reminds me of Kal’s famous cartoon:


  • Greenflag

    @ joe canuck,

    ‘Neutrino goes into a bar and orders a pint. How much?, it says. Barman replies, “For you, no charge”.

    I guess that could be called – wait for it –An ionic joke ?

  • Greenflag

    @ andrew gallagher ,

    brilliant — BTW Thats not a cartoon that’s the market in the here and now 😉

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Thanks Joe,

    And feel free to throw a few “keep at it”, “don’t throw in the towel” platitudes my way. Yes, it’s getting that close to writing up and I’ve no idea about what yet.

    All you can do is laugh sometimes.

  • Pete Baker

    Getting back to the actual topic…

    Here’s a quote from theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili – on Twitter, natch.

    Right, if the CERN experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.

  • I wondered whether at 60 nanoseconds, it is within the error range for the precise speed of light. Specifically, I wonder if they have tried sending light particles under precisely the same conditions to compare speeds.

  • AndyB,

    The speed of light is very well known. More likely errors are in measuring the distance between the sites and in synchronising clocks. Synchronising clocks is particularly difficult over such long distances.

    Unfortunately, sending a light beam along the same path wouldn’t help, because even those few frequencies that pass through solid rock would travel significantly slower than the speed of light in vacuo.

  • Comrade Stalin


    The old joke applies to neutrons, not neutrinos. Neutrinos are a relatively new idea and not nearly as well understood. The big problem is that they pass through things without interacting with them so they are very hard to detect.

    The theories around them were being tested away back in 1987. They set up a massive tank of ultra pure heavy water and had the theory that over a certain period of time they might spot one or two neutrinos. One day there was a big spike and they detected several hundred of them. They spent some time trying to figure out what was broken because there would be no way that they would detect so many at once. It turned out that the neutrinos were real, and they’d been detected having travelled from a star in the Large Megellanic Cloud which had just exploded in a supernova (SN1987A). Cool or what ?

    [edited moderator]

  • Andrew,

    Before I went to sleep last night I composed a comment in my head to post today. It was remarkably like yours. I don’t imagine how they could measure the distance to the required precision. As for the clocks, if they synchronized them together, then fly one to the other site, the one that moved will appear to be slow when it gets there compared to the static one.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Andrew makes a nice remark.

    When things approach the speed of light, time “dilates”, in other words it would not appear the same length of time to an external observer than to the object in question. Pretty cool.

    That said, I doubt it has any thing to do with this observation. This seems like a straightforward enough ‘stop-watch’ experiment.


    I guarantee the 0.06km/s above light speed is within error. If not, we’d probably have difficulty defining the speed of light itself if it was. Considering we have instruments which can measure sub picosecond (10^-15s) then nanoseconds is no problem. Its like trying to measure an hour with the resolution of a second.

    Also, they said they’ve gone through the basic sources of error already and I reckon this one was pretty much top of their list.

  • Reader

    Andrew Gallagher: More likely errors are in measuring the distance between the sites and in synchronising clocks.
    Also, possibly, (1) GR and the difference in altitude of the sites. (2) GR and the varying gravitational potential along the path. (3) Rotation of the earth.

  • Reader

    Oh yes; and (4) Did they get their inertial frame of reference right?

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru


    They’re all in the same inertial frame of reference, so there’s no need to concern yourself with things like the earth’s rotation.

    Also, this problem is only concerning the universal speed limit set by special relativity. General relativity would only come into it if you were dealing with a specific space-time four-vector subject to curvature. However since the difference between gravity between Italy and Switzerland is neglible then its not necessary.

    All that said, any guess on here is as good as mine.

  • And there is a difference between precision and accuracy, not to mention bias. My feeling, for what it’s worth (not much) is that this “result” will not stand.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru


    Maybe I’m the only one but, with regards to measuring stuff, what exactly is the difference between precision an accuracy?

  • Charlie,

    Let’s say you like to target shoot. You always hit just outside the circles on the the target. You are precise; always just outside the scoring area. But you’re not accurate; you never score. The problem may lie in a bias; your rifle sights are slightly misaligned.

  • Here’s one site that explains it better than I can.


  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Fair enough, its a descrepancy I’ve never encountered. Thanks.

  • The experiment was designed to measure the speed of neutrinos

    Wow! Imagine that; the experiment involved a measurement. I wonder could the measurement be wrong.

  • Rory Carr

    Guys in measuring contest. God knows what pop-ups will be generated.

  • lover not a fighter

    Sure its only a few neutrinos. Maybe they knew they were going to be sent and decided to get an early start !

  • Devil Eire

    “We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here”, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

  • Before 23 years, I had proved mathematically that relative velocity may be more than light velocity. CERN proved experimentally that velocity of Neutrinos may be more than light, if this news will be confirmed then that will be new beginning of physics.
    Please read paper “What is matter & dark matter is made up of?” on my web site http://www.maheshkhati.com. This paper may help to find solution to problems like what is dark matter? & about true relativity. I strongly oppose special theory of relativity

  • I recommend visiting mahesh khati’s website, if only to laugh at his perpetual motion machine and his badly forged letter from NASA.

    (Hint to mahesh: the director of NASA has better English grammar than you do)

  • I am not a god. I am man on earth. I may have some good & wrong ideas. Visit my web site http://www.maheshkhati.com you may get some very good, some very bad ideas (As Andrew said.). When visit to my site do not read any letter from ISRO, NASA or MEDA because all are forged (As Andrew). Read only ideas that are important & may be interesting.