The data that threatened to break physics

I think as any scientist, [I was] very, very, very skeptical from day one,” says Ereditato. “You make a check list: timing, receiver, GPS, transmitter from the receiver to the detector, … you check everything.” Some options were checked immediately, while others required them to wait. The CERN beam, for example, could not be stopped. In the meantime, Ereditato drove his team hard. “You could not imagine how I was handling this business with my colleagues—check this, check that, do this, do that, do this, let’s cut the chain, do it again, do it again—we did this from spring to September 23rd!”

The team tried and tested every permutation of software, hardware, and theory that they could think of, and through every step, every bug they fixed, every increment of understanding they earned, the evidence for faster than light neutrinos stood as solid as the mountain above the experiment. Then, the inevitable happened: News of the data leaked. People outside the experiment started gossiping about a violation of relativity, a result that would rattle the foundation of physics like it hadn’t been rattled since 1900, when Max Planck discovered quantum physics. The rumors “spread at the speed of light,” Ereditato tells me.

“And then what do you do? Think about yourself taking the position of spokesperson. Do you say: No, no comment? And then everyone will blame you, all journalists: ‘Oh you hide it. We want to know what is happening. We are taxpayers giving support to you, we have the right to know!’ Or you make a claim.” In a sinister voice, he adds: “I discovered the superluminal neutrinos.”