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'Faster-than-light neutrino' scientist steps down

April 2, 2012 |  8:26 am

The leader of an experiment that was said to have shown subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light has resigned from his post, according to Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics

The leader of an experiment that was said to have shown subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light has resigned from his post, according to Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

Antonio Ereditato stepped down as chief of the OPERA experiment (the oscillation project with emulsion-racking apparatus) at the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy. The lab took the physics world by storm last September when researchers working on the experiment announced that they had clocked neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle, apparently traveling faster than the speed of light.

Ereditato's decision, announced by the institute on Friday, was quickly followed by the resignation of another OPERA leader, Dario Autiero, according to Science News. Both departures followed a vote of no-confidence by leaders of groups within the collaboration.

If proved to be true, the experiment's results would turn a century of physics on its head, since Albert Einstein in 1905 put forth in his special theory of relativity that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

"If you have particles traveling faster than the speed of light, you can in principle go back in time. So you can be your own grandmother," Stephen Parke, a theoretical particle physicist at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., told The Times back when the results were made public. "As you can imagine, that causes some problems."

The findings were viewed with shock and then skepticism. Even Ereditato expressed caution, and urged colleagues to double-check the results. Papers positing all range of errors and theories flooded in.

Last month, another Gran Sasso experimental group known as ICARUS (imaging cosmic and rare underground signal) found that neutrinos traveling the same subterranean path did not break the speed of light.

The ICARUS results came just weeks after the OPERA experiment announced that there may have been communication problems between a GPS unit and the computer that clocked the neutrinos' speeds.

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Photo: A scientist looks at the OPERA experiment at Italy's Gran Sasso Laboratory on Nov. 14, 2011. Credit: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP/Getty Images 

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