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Faster than the speed of light? Guest physicist presents international neutrino research


BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 30, 2011 – A physicist from the underground Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy presented recent findings of research to measure the speed of neutrinos to a packed house at the Holzman Alumni Center Auditorium at Virginia Tech Monday night. 

Yves Declais, part of the international research team, described how the group, known as OPERA, for Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus conducted the experiment and the initial results, which captured worldwide attention last week. Declais served as former spokesperson for the project.

The conference was sponsored by the Department of Physics in the College of Science and was organized by Continuing and Professional Education.

According to Declais, neutrinos that were created in a lab outside Geneva traveled to Gran Sasso, a distance of about 450 miles, about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 0.0025 percent.

Many scientists, including some in the audience at Monday night’s lecture, questioned the methodology in the experiment and the large room for error in the results. The OPERA group decided to make these shocking findings public in order to have them scrutinized by other researchers.

Neutrinos are illusive, elementary particles that are extremely difficult to detect. They come in three “varieties” and can morph from one type to another as they travel through space This phenomenon is known as oscillation. The main focus of the OPERA experiment is to test neutrino oscillations

“Neutrinos are the least well-known of all elementary particles and therefore still good for a number of surprises,” said Patrick Huber, assistant professor of physics. “Are they really traveling faster than the speed of light? I don’t know. The analysis is quite technical, and the result depends on getting each minute detail right. Only more experimentation can settle this question.”

Virginia Tech is rapidly making a name for itself as an international player in the field of neutrinos. The university’s Center for Neutrino Physics opened this year. Monday’s presentation was part of a three-day neutrino conference sponsored by the center, which drew attendees from around the world. It was also the first official conference held in the United States since the findings were released.

The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biological sciences, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college offers programs in cutting-edge areas including, among others, those in energy and the environment, developmental science across the lifespan, infectious diseases, computational science, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The College of Science is dedicated to fostering a research-intensive environment that promotes scientific inquiry and outreach.