'Faster-Than-Light' Study Coordinator Resigns
Einstein's theory of special relativity sets of the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second (300 million meters per second), as a cosmic speed limit. Some researchers think they may have broken this limit, and the implications are mind bending.
Credit: Willem Dijkstra, Shutterstock

The media and scientific ripples after a shocking announcement that physicists had detected particles seeming to travel faster than light have culminated with the project's coordinator, Antonio Ereditato, stepping down, according to Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN).

In September, baffled physicists from the OPERA collaboration announced that they had sent beams of particles called neutrinos from the CERN laboratory, in Geneva, to a detector buried underground 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Gran Sasso, Italy, finding that the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second sooner than light would have.

The speed of light is thought to be a cosmic speed limit imposed by Einstein's special theory of relativity. The OPERA scientists were as surprised as anyone by the anomaly they detected, inviting other researchers to scrutinize their results and recreate the experiment to help prove or disprove "faster-than-light" findings.

Just this month, results from one such independent version of the original OPERA experiment suggested the neutrinos were traveling at sub light speed. This ICARUS experiment suggested, as others had suspected, the shocking anomaly was an artifact of the measurement itself.

The process that ensued since the shocking announcement is exactly what should happen in the scientific process, Ereditato noted.

"It is a matter of record that we detected and announced the existence of two subtle instrument-related effects that can either totally or partially explain the anomaly," he said in an editor's note posted online today (March 30) by Le Scienze. "The words 'errors,' 'mistakes' and 'flop' were bandied about regarding what in actual fact is standard scientific procedure in experimental work."

But tensions seem to have reached a threshold, Ereditato said in his statement.

He said because of the large amount of media interest, "the OPERA Collaboration found itself under anomalous and in some respects irregular pressure," he wrote.  Ereditato added that, "External tensions do not take long to transfer to the inside of a social system comprising over 150 people," in the OPERA project.

"In my role as project coordinator, I have done everything within my power to dissipate the tensions within the project. However, when it became clear to me that tensions had gone beyond a critical threshold and turned into open criticism, I felt that the time had come for me to tender my resignation in order to foster a new, more widely shared consensus," Ereditato said in his statement.

He told LiveScience, he was referring to "some tension within the collaboration, understandable for the broad interest on OPERA from colleagues and general public."

But just because Ereditato has stepped down from his chairmanship, he hasn't stepped out of academia and research. "I am still a member of OPERA, for which I lead a group of 15 physicists and students from Bern," Ereditato said. "I am director of the High Energy Physics Laboratory in Bern and conduct other experiments in [the] USA, CERN and Japan."

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