Well, the press is all fired up about a claim of faster than light neutrinos. The claim from the OPERA experiment can be found in this paper. The paper was released on September 22nd and it has already gotten 20 blog links. Not bad for a new claim.

Considering that the news organizations are happily bashing special relativity, one can always rely on XKCD to spin it correctly.

Now more to the point: the early arrival time is claimed to be 60 nanoseconds. The distance between the emitter and the observer is claimed to be known to about 20 cm, certified by various National Standards bodies. A whole bunch of different systematic errors are estimated and added in quadrature, not to mention that they need satellite relays to match various timings.

60 nanoseconds is about the same as 20 meters uncertainty (just multiply by the speed of light) and they claim this to be both due to statistical errors and systematics. The statistical error is from a likelihood fit. The systematic error is irreducible and in a certain sense it is the best guess for what the number actually is. They did a blind analysis: this means that the data is kept in the dark until all calibrations have been made, and then the number is discovered for the measurement.

My first reaction is that it could have been worse. It is a very complicated measurement.

Notice that if we assume all systematic errors in table 2 are aligned we get a systematic error that can be three times as big. It is dominated by what they call BCT calibration. The errors are added in quadrature assuming that they are completely uncorrelated, but it is unclear if that is so. But the fact that one error dominates so much means that if they got that wrong by a factor of 2 or 3 (also typical for systematic errors), the result loses a bit on the significance.

My best guess right now is that there is a systematic error that was not taken into account: this does not mean that the people that run the experiment are not smart, it’s just that there are too many places where a few extra nanoseconds could have sneaked in. It should take a while for this to get sorted out.

You can also check Matt Strassler’s blog and Lubos Motl’s blog for more discussion.

Needless to say, astrophysical data from SN1987a point to neutrinos behaving just fine and they have a much longer baseline. I have heard claims that the effect must depend on the energy of the neutrinos. This can be checked directly: if I were running the experiment, I would repeat it with lower energy neutrinos (for which we have independent data) and see if the effect goes away then.