Another neutrino firing: Faster-than-light physicist quits under pressure

Moral of the story - check your measuring equipment before you mess with Dr. Einstein.

Physicists poured into a CERN auditorium last September to hear Dario Auterio (front center) explain his Einstein-defying, faster-than-light neutrinos.

Physicist Dario Auterio has spent a lot of time recently firing neutrinos from Geneva and proclaiming with bewilderment that they appeared to impossibly travel faster than light. Now he has fired something else: himself.

Auterio stepped down on March 30 as head of the OPERA team at Geneva's CERN laboratory, after confirming that equipment errors led to the erroneous speed readings that grabbed headlines around the world, Nature is reporting. OPERA's collaboration board had earlier voted no confidence in him, the magazine says.

Auterio's resignation all but closes a saga that started in September , when OPERA said that neutrinos had traveled from Geneva to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory 455 miles away in Italy, apparently faster than the speed of light.

Part of the overflow crowd at Dario Auterio's neutrino presentation in September.

At the time, Auterio and his team stopped short of declaring an absolute result. Instead, they appealed to the international scientific community to find flaws in the findings which, if true, would upend Albert Einstein's century-plus old special theory of relativity that says nothing travels faster than light in a vacuum. Much of modern physics relies on that theory.

OPERA re-clocked a new set of neutrinos in November, and reported the same Einstein-defying outcome. But a few months later it revealed that its measuring equipment might have been flawed , and it vowed to repeat the experiment a third time, this May.

According to Nature, the third experiment will still go ahead, even though OPERA has now confirmed that a faulty cable and a flawed master clock distorted the appearance of the neutrinos' speed.

Meanwhile, a second CERN team, called ICARUS , conducted its own experiment recently and reported that neutrinos did not outrace light.

Auterio came under pressure to resign, which he did a day after OPERA's spokesman Antonio Ereditato also resigned, the Nature story states.

Neutrinos are shadowy subatomic particles that can travel unhindered through things - like earth.

The OPERA team had first noted the faster-than-light journey in a moment of serendipity: It had originally sent the neutrinos packing under the Alps from CERN to Gran Sasso to note how many of them would change state. The neutrinos surprised them by arriving in what looked like 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, which is what OPERA first announced in September.

Ereditato, the OPERA spokesman who resigned, issued a statement in the Italian version of Scientific American on March 30 defending the September announcement in which CERN had appealed for help in explaining the anomaly. "This is a natural part of the canons of scientific process," he said in the statement. "Science forges ahead in the land of the unknown by taking two steps forward and step back, making corrections and learning from its mistakes."

One lesson science might have learned from the neutrino story: Check your instruments before you mess with Dr. Einstein.

Photos from CERN.

The CERN neutrino saga as it unfolded on SmartPlanet (most recent stories on top):

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