The untold story of the infamous faster-than-light neutrino experiment from 2012.
Even if you’re reading this, I expect that you don’t know who I am. Even within my field, I was hardly a big name – just another obscure scientist toiling away in her little corner of expertise, trying to explain the universe with incomplete data. That’s the problem with modern physics: it’s too big. Remember, we’re only a few hundred centuries removed from hunter-gatherer societies. There are places on Earth where humans still live that way. I envy that ignorance, knowing what I know now. But the point is that our brains are not evolved to see a picture this large. We search for patterns, for commonalities on the macroscopic scale. The big numbers just confuse us. Is it any wonder the attempt to quantify the physical universe has splintered into so many different fields? The string theorists argue with the quantum gravitationalists, the astrophysicists with the particle physicists. Everyone’s looking for the Theory of Everything, but they’re all starting from the same place: the Theory of the Thing That’s Mine. Maybe that’s how we managed to miss the obvious for so long.
For me, it began with the anomalous OPERA experiments of 2011 and 2012. Unlike most of the work done at CERN, this was something the mainstream press picked up on. And no wonder: it was such an appealing, sci-fi idea. Faster than light particles. The concept electrified people brought up on Star Trek. Somehow, one of the few elements of Special Relativity that has worked its way into public consciousness is that the speed of light is an inviolable constraint in our universe. There’s no reason they should understand that but not, for example, the everyday nature of time dilation, or even the most basic Newtonian principles of motion and thermodynamics. Your average man in the street seems to know perfectly well that nothing can travel faster than light, and yet he turns up his nose at entropy. Perhaps it goes back to pattern-spotting and macroscopic principles, or maybe it’s just the line in that Monty Python song.
Is it any wonder then that people were excited? Any paradigm-busting discovery can propel physics into the spotlight, especially when the huge resource-drain that is CERN is involved. And yet the scientific community was rightly sceptical. It seemed too good to be true. Caution was counselled. The experiments were repeated, and the source of the error was found: a faulty fibre-optic cable and an incorrectly calibrated clock. It was that simple. I wonder, did you see that news story reported? Probably not. Normally the mainstream media can’t wait to gloat over foolish scientists getting things wrong, but there was no story there. The compelling part of it all was the FTL neutrino itself. No magic particle, no story. And so it evaporated, just like our near-massless friends themselves. The whole business says more about sociology than physics.
But now, here, I can reveal the truth. I was one of the physicists working on that experiment. I was at the OPERA detector at LNGS. There was no faulty cable, and that clock was working fine. It was all a cover up. Yes, I know how that sounds. You don’t believe in conspiracy theories, and neither do I. Conspiracy theories are another of those stories human beings tell about the world, an attempt to make sense of forces they don’t understand. This is the exception to that rule, and it worked because the stakes seemed low, and the number of people involved was tiny. How many people were responsible for screwing in a cable? How many people calibrated that clock? Only one: me. Mine was the only silence they needed to buy. But I’m a scientist. I couldn’t just sit on this knowledge. But, frankly, their explanation was satisfying, and there are…complexities.
Not many mainstream news outlets reported any significant details about the experiment that produced this bizarre result. How could they when it required so much technical knowledge? If you’re a science-fiction fan, you probably think it’s easy to detect a neutrino. Just point the scanner at the air and read the number. Of all the offences against science committed by that genre, things like that are worst. But I’m a particle physicist: I would say that, wouldn’t I? Neutrino detection is a complicated business. You see, they’re just wisps of energy, shooting across space. You can’t see them, you can’t hear them, you can’t even touch them – the whole universe is transparent to a neutrino. They barely interact with any other particles; they just pass straight through the gaps in the structure of most atoms, off on their merry way. That’s what makes them so fascinating though. With almost no mass, barely so much as a charge to their name, they’re free to violate all manner of physical principles. They travel at light speed, and because they don’t interact, they never change their speed. Electrons and photons you can slow down. “Light speed” in our atmosphere isn’t really c at all – it’s a fraction slower due to the medium of travel. And even the vacuum of space isn’t truly empty. Once in a billion years, even a photon collides with something out there. But for neutrinos, our planet and our atmosphere may as well not exist. They zip through us, like an infinitely sharp knife through butter. To find them, you have to build vast, strange detectors. Heavy water is a good one: great tanks of the stuff, lined with phototubes to detect Cherenkov radiation that results when a neutrino hits an electron or a muon swimming in that tank and accelerates it to relativistic speeds. You can use other materials, and other methods. Gallium or chlorine, even solid bricks of certain plastics. The principle remains the same: pack enough matter together, watch for the right spark, and you have your neutrino. But you need a huge amount of matter, and you have to bury it deep underground to protect it from cosmic rays. See, we’re swimming in a constant neutrino rain. Picking out the one you’re looking for is several million orders of magnitude more difficult than finding a needle in the proverbial haystack.
CERN shoots a beam of neutrinos at the OPERA detector over 700 kilometres away, and it has done for years. This was just one experiment using the existing set-up. Another thing you have to understand about neutrino detection is that it’s physically impossible to follow the route of a single particle. The flight time we recorded was based on estimates and averages of readings taken from the entire particle stream, accounting for hundreds of miniscule errors. It was a measurement expressed in nanoseconds anyway. We were at the limits of the granularity of human perception. And yet, the results were clear. The neutrinos were moving faster than light. An impossibility.
Like everyone else, I accepted the explanation that there had simply been an error. What I didn’t accept was that it was my error. I am not a woman known for sloppy work. I teased and tugged at the equations, endlessly revaluated the data. We had scrutinised all aspects of the experiment thoroughly – eliminating variance was built into the methodology – but I delved deeper. I could find no error with the set-up. One of the prices of my silence was that I should remove myself from the scientific community, at least for a while. My name would be kept out of the papers published, and I would be given a position based far from any sensitive work being done around this particular sub-field of particle physics. In return, I was taken care of. It was no trouble at all for scientists used to calibrating their experiments to eliminate errors measured in nanoseconds to cook the books and run rings around the bean counters.
My needs were modest anyway; I have no dependents, no expensive hobbies. I was sent to Oslo, to carry out meaningless research, to lay low in the icy darkness of Northern Europe.
It suited me well enough. It was quiet. No other scientists there could boast my credentials in my field, and so I was left largely alone. At first I tinkered away at half-forgotten theses from long before I became embroiled in the fateful experiment and, for a time, this kept me satisfied. But my brain would not let me leave well enough alone. I knew there was a lie at the heart of the experiment, and this was about more than my reputation. In secret, I returned to work. I gathered all the date from the OPERA experiment – it was readily available to me, even if I was technically persona non grata – and began to examine the figures even more closely than before. I dedicated my entire life to scrutinising those numbers in utmost detail, eliminating every error and variable. I found mistakes that had been overlooked – things that, gallingly, would have made even better scapegoats than my own alleged failings. Still I pressed further, losing myself in numbers and calculations. I was dizzy with it by the end, but I emerged triumphant and vindicated. Errors were plentiful, such was human nature, but after everything was multiplied out and reinserted into the original equations, I was left with one indisputable fact. The neutrino had broken the light barrier. But only just.
How fractional was its violation of the fundamental principles of the universe? As fractional as could be. And I would have dismissed it as another error if I’d noticed the significance of my numbers sooner, but it was only when I had surrendered myself to pure interrogation of the data, spending months alone in my tiny, cold room, barely eating or sleeping, until figures played on the inside of my eyelids like an endless, numbing movie reel, that I reached this solution. I underscored in three times with my stubby pencil and stared at it. It was familiar to me, somehow, and I had to reengage the critical part of my brain, the human crouching inside this machine of pure, unrelenting logic that I had become, to see it. The neutrino had arrived, as accurately as I could account for, 5.4×10-44 seconds before it should have. This is a significant value. It is Planck time, the unit of measurement that indicates the time it takes for an object to travel a single Planck length at the speed of light. It represents, fundamentally, the granularity of the universe. It is as short a time as is possible to exist, as Planck length is as short a distance as possible. It is the base scale of existence. The neutrino’s flight time was out by the thinnest sliver of reality possible. But it was out. That was indisputable.
What could it mean? I could not go public with these findings. I had already been exiled because of my alleged incompetence – to dredge it up again would mean risking some even worse fate. I was not supposed to be attached to this ill-fated experiment any more. And besides all that, my former colleagues at CERN and LNGS would not be too pleased to find I was still analysing their data when I should have been keeping my head down in Oslo. I had to formulate a conclusion of my own, in secret, a theory that could explain these bizarre findings.
A neutrino fired from CERN could not travel to the OPERA detector faster than the speed of light. That was certain. In order for it to have arrived earlier than it should have – even by the fractional Planck time I had discovered – it must have been fired earlier. Or, crucially, from somewhere else. In fact, from a Planck length displaced. No instrument made by humans is finely calibrated enough to detect such a displacement, and we could not build an emitter that could take it into account. This is why any physicist would have simply dismissed this as an error. However, it set me to considering certain fundamentals I had not before given thought to. The universe is awash with neutrinos. We can create them in particle accelerators ourselves, but they are also emitted from stars, black holes, and many other sources. They pour out into the cosmos in their quadrillions. And yet, they do possess mass: a fractional amount, perhaps the smallest amount possible – a “Planck mass”, if you will – where does this go? Neutrinos are not absorbed. That is what makes them so useful for these experiments. They simply carry on their luminal path, ignoring the universe, forever. But there are physical laws that cover conservation of mass. A single neutrino represents the smallest possible collection of matter, but it is matter. It cannot simply accumulate in the universe. It must go somewhere.
It came to me in a dream. Perhaps, in my obsession, I had begun to cast myself as some maverick artist. Why not in a dream? We all know the apocryphal tale of Newton’s apple. Inspiration can strike from anywhere. It was as simple as this: if neutrinos could not remain in this universe, they must somehow pass into another. And if they could pass one way, they could pass the other. I lay in bed in the darkness of my room, mind still bleary from sleep, and considered the possibility that the neutrinos we had detected in the experiment were not, in fact, the neutrinos we had fired. Instead, they could have been emitted from an identical stream in another universe that was removed from ours by a single Planck unit of space and time.
I know it seems outlandish, but please do not turn away in disgust now. I am not talking of the “quantum universes” so beloved by science fiction. This is not about parallel realties branching off from our own because of the Copenhagen Effect. This is something far more fundamental. If there were other universes – billions upon billions of them – out of phase with ours by the smallest possible amount, we would never detect them. Perform this small thought experiment: imagine there is another universe, precisely like our own, with another you reading these words, but shifted ahead in time by one second. Could you disprove that universe’s existence? How? It would be inaccessible. By the time you had caught up, the people of that reality would already be another second ahead! We would forever be chasing them, never able to interact. The walls would be impenetrable, constructed as they are by space and time. We would be transparent to one another. And now, imagine further, that reality consists of uncountable numbers of such universes, nested within one another, back to the Big Bang. As I considered the implications, I began to see the nature of entropy bound up in this imagined multiversal topography. Time itself was laid bare to me.
I was feverish. Not just with this frenzy of discovery, but literally. My exhaustion and malnourishment had led to me contracting a virus. I had long ago alienated my colleagues in Oslo. No one came to check on me. The weeks passed in a blur of confusion and diarrhoea, but I could not stop now. I pulled up articles on astrophysics and cosmology on my ailing laptop and began to see evidence of my theory everywhere. I believed I could explain the expansion of the universe, the existence of dark matter and energy, and much more besides.
This is what I began to believe: there are a multitude of universes, each occupying a position in space and time separated by a Planck unit relative to those around it. Since we are dealing with at least four spatial dimensions and one temporal one, it is not helpful to think of it as a continuous chain of universes, stacked atop one another, but rather a great confusing, bubbling foam of them, overlapping intricately. It is impossible to imagine. All universes are self-contained, inaccessible to their neighbours, but when conservation of mass is violated, the membranes that separate them can be penetrated by the smallest possible fundamental particles, neutrinos. A surge of neutrinos being created – like the beam at CERN – could thus permanently open a fissure between adjacent universes and allow neutrinos to pass between them. That is what we had detected at LNGS: not neutrinos from our universe, but from the next one forward in time and/or space. No doubt the effect occurs all over the universe(s), all the time, but how often are we measuring for such an effect?
This was all interesting enough, but of course I had no way to prove that it was true. Fundamentally, it was unprovable. We were forever out of synch with our sister universes. But I began to wonder about finding a way to repeat the experiment without alerting my former colleagues to my intentions. If I could find a natural source of neutrino emission and find some way to observe this reality-boring effect, it would confirm my hypothesis. Neutrinos were being smashed from muons and taus in particle accelerators across the globe, but I would never be allowed near one before my penance was up, and who could say when that would be? No, I would have to look for a natural source, and there was only one such in range: the Sun.
All stars emit neutrinos along with almost every other imaginable particle. They sweep towards us in a great, invisible curtain along the wake of the solar wind. They saturate the planet, and of course are completely harmless and largely undetectable. When a particularly impressive solar flare erupts in our direction, the wash of neutrinos is even greater. This was what I sought. Still in my feverish state, I researched the next such event. They were common enough, but the trick would be finding the right place to gather data. Neutrinos interact with other matter so rarely, but in the conflagrations of the Sun’s corona, super-heated particles jostle against one another. They are flung out in whatever direction it may be, and even the flow of neutrinos might be directed by great forces. Such was the power of Earth’s magnetic field, which directed the stellar wind and thus concentrated the flow of neutrinos towards the magnetic poles. This cataclysmic interaction of stellar forces is played out above our heads in the great glimmering auroras.
Many times in the following weeks, I questioned my sanity. A solar flare was due less than a month after I began to formulate this plan, and I made arrangements to travel to the North Magnetic Pole. It was not so far from Oslo, though the logistics were complicated, and I was no survival expert. But it was not an insurmountable task, and I bent all my resources to arranging it. That is how I found myself trekking alone through the snow, swaddled in layers of thermal clothing, holding out a compass before me as the wind howled. It was the Arctic night, the sixth months of absolute darkness in which the sun never crests the horizon. That made no difference to the solar flare, which was vast enough to saturate the entire planet with its blowback of particulate matter. Only at magnetic north would I see anything, if I would see it at all.
It was so dark. Indescribably dark. No moon shone on that fateful night, and the great, endless stretch of icecap reflected nothing back but dim starlight. It was my habit simply to walk until I became too tired to continue, and then to make camp where I fell. I did not know if it was day or night. Such notions are meaningless this far north. I walked, keeping my head down against the fierce wind. The men who sold me the equipment thought I had a deathwish. Perhaps I did. The truth, that even I was able to acknowledge, was that I had become obsessed with proving my theory. In my mind, it had become an indisputable fact that we were surrounded by other universes, at a slight variance with our own, exchanging neutrinos across realities. In my thought experiments, the burst of concentrated neutrinos would reverberate like the ringing of a bell, causing neutrino resonances with neighbouring universes, and perhaps beyond as they too were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of new matter. I imagined a great multiversal harmony, invisible to the inhabitants of those universes in which it occurred.
Inhabitants? Well yes, why not? I did not entertain the notion that the other realities, even those close to our own, were like true parallel universes. I knew that, even if our universe were to begin again with identical starting conditions, it was unlikely to produce even our solar system, let alone our Earth, populated by people like us. I did not believe another me struggled to the North Pole in some distant universe. They were not infinite, these universes, that is crucial to understand. They are tied to the physical scale of the fabric of spacetime. They do not encompass every possible version of events, like the monkeys who type Shakespeare. The other universes might be devoid of life, or completely unlike our own, with different physical constants. And yet…I could not shake the feeling, now that I knew (or thought that I knew) about this that we were not alone, that they were there, just out of sight. Others. Creatures from a universe just out of step with ours. Just a few seconds of spacetime represented billions of these universes. Life must exist in at least one of those. Life, perhaps like us, straining at the fabric of the cosmos, unable to perceive us, and yet all around us. As transparent as neutrinos.
The thought had cheered me in my little room in Oslo, but out here on the ice, it was different. I was haunted by invisible eyes. Many times I considered turning back, only to remind myself of how far I had come, and of what an important discovery this might be. In the utter darkness of that last night, with only faint starlight to illuminate me, I wondered what I might see. My compass began to show me what I suspected – that I had reached the North Magnetic Pole, or thereabouts. It was not necessary for me to be at the exact spot. I looked around. The dark ice formed a seemingly infinite plain and, for a moment, I felt oddly disorientated, like I was standing on the top of a vast mountain. In a way, I was. This was close to the peak of the world. I sat down, and waited.
What had I expected? I had no detection equipment with me. An Olympic-sized swimming pool of heavy water is not something you can lug to the Arctic Circle. I had come here on a strange whim. Neutrinos were invisible; there would be nothing to see. And yet, I waited. I looked up at the slowly wheeling stars, imagining the awesome forces at work above my head, and I thought of all those other universes where different stars moved. I was alone. I was witness to a conjunction of events that mankind had only accidentally stumbled upon before this. I felt certain that no one else had ever sat in this spot, at this moment, as the neutrino cascade fell from the sun and saturated the Earth. It happens hundreds of times a year, but this place is too remote. No one comes here at the right time.
It was almost as if I could feel the weight of universes pressing down upon me. Had it begun? How would I know? What would I see?
I have no hope that anyone will ever read this account. How could they? I scrawl it with the last strength of numb fingers, filling up my final notebook with this dense, spidery scrawl, preserving for all time the thoughts and emotions of one fragile human, adrift in a strange place. I have no clear recollection of the process that brought me here from the Arctic ice, only that I opened my eyes to find myself lying on another expanse of frozen wasteland. At first I thought I had just drifted off to sleep, but when I looked up I saw the stars were gone. I walked for a while, but my compass never changed. There is no magnetic field here. It is bitterly cold though, and the air is thin and hard to breathe. It is dark. Darker than it was at the North Pole, an environ that now seems warm and familiar. I erected my tent and tried to sleep, planning to wait until the morning, but no morning will ever come here, I sense. It is clear to me I was right. But that I might be able to travel myself into one of these adjacent universes was not a possibility I had considered. I do not even know if I am just one universe removed from my own, of course. The resonance I spoke of may have flung me further, across many billions of intervening realities. Yet I am just seconds and meters from home, surely. Tantalisingly close. My supplies will not last long, although I suspect the cold of this place will kill me first. I can only pray that the end will come soon.
There is, you must understand, another concern. I quake in my tent, adrift on this other Earth in a starless universe, for I have seen what lurks beyond the empty horizon. In the darkness, as I walked, I saw them: distant, indescribable things, half-understood structural features of this bleak world, shadowy, towering shapes in the blackness of space. And I knew they were alive. Do not ask me how. Who knows what powers they possess? Who knows what they truly are? This is another universe, utterly alien to us. To me. But there are watchful minds in the void here, vast and terrible intellects. I can feel them, somehow, trying to understand me, this little warm ape thrust so abruptly into their plane of existence. And if I can discern a way into their universe, might they find the same way back?
My hands shake. I am sorry this is illegible. No one will read this. No one will find me. I am gone, lost to the multiversal resonance of neutrinos. If someone does somehow find this notebook though, please remember: they are all around you.