A Bet Concerning Neutrinos (Part 5)

It’s a little-known spinoff of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. When you accurately measure the velocity of neutrinos, they can turn into ham!

I observed this myself. It came in the mail along with some sausages, bacon, and peach and blueberry syrup. They’re from Heather Vandagriff. Thanks, Heather!

These are the first of my winnings on some bets concerning the famous OPERA experiment that seemed to detect neutrinos going faster than light. I bet that this experiment would be shown wrong. Heather bet me some Tennessee ham against some nice cloth from Singapore.

The OPERA team announced that they’d detected faster-than-light neutrinos back in September 2011. But later, they discovered two flaws in their experimental setup.

First, a fiber optic cable wasn’t screwed in right. This made it take about 70 nanoseconds longer than it should have for a signal from a global positioning system to the so-called ‘master clock’:

Since the clock got its signal late, the neutrinos seemed to show up early. Click on the picture for a more detailed explanation.

On top of this, the clock was poorly calibrated! This had a roughly opposite effect: it tended to make the neutrinos seem to show up late… but only some of the time. However, this effect was not big enough, on average, to cancel the other mistake.

The OPERA team fixed these problems and repeated the experiment in May 2012. The neutrinos came in slower than light:

• OPERA, Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam, 12 July 2012.

Three other experiments using the same neutrino source—Borexino, ICARUS, and LVD—also got the same result! For a more detailed post-mortem, with lots of references, see:

Faster-than-light neutrino anomaly, Wikipedia.

My wife Lisa has a saying from her days in the computer business: when in doubt, check the cables.

12 Responses to A Bet Concerning Neutrinos (Part 5)

  1. Heather says:

    You are more than welcome, and I hope you and Lisa enjoy it – don’t forget the grits and the red-eye gravy and biscuits.

    • John Baez says:

      I don’t know how red-eye gravy works. I can definitely make grits. I love biscuits but never make ’em myself.

      • Heather says:

        Red-Eye Gravy: http://southernfood.about.com/od/hamrecipes/r/bl00921a.htm

        Canned biscuits are fine – some people eat the red-eye on the grits, or the biscuits. (My family put the gravy on the biscuits and “sopped” up the plate with them as well.) In your grits, put a big chunk of cream cheese, like a heaping tablespoon for 2-4 servings, and stir. I sincerely confess that the idea of eating greasy coffee never has and never will appeal to me, however, this meal is *straight* from the South. Eggs, too. My arteries are clogging just trying to describe it.

  2. Allen Knutson says:

    Do you have a ham license?


  3. Tom Knight says:

    The risetime on the amplifier output sucks (technical term). No wonder they had a problem. First order of business would be to make that blue signal look more like a digital signal and less like some sloppy analog disaster.

  4. Rick says:

    I’m no physicist, but I read quite a bit on the subject, including some of the low-level mathematical treatments of special relativity. When I first heard of the OPERA result, I thought it was instantly obvious to practically everyone that there had to be some experimental error. So I’d be curious to know what led some folks to be so convinced of the possible correctness of the experiment as to actually bet on the outcome. (OK, mostly I’m just jealous because *I* didn’t win some ham!)

    • John Baez says:

      The people who took bets with me were all friends who, rather than being convinced that the OPERA experiment was right, seemed willing to have a little fun and be forced to do something nice for me if they lost the bet.

      I would have been happy to bet against crackpots who were sure the OPERA experiment was right, but no such people answered my public call for bets.

      What I really want is to make bets regarding global warming. However, I’ve only managed one puny little bet about whether the extent of Arctic sea ice will recover from its current decline in a while:

      Someone believes we’re near the end of a natural cycle. Unfortunately the bet was so puny that I can’t even remember his name, and I’ll probably forget to collect!

      • Richard says:

        I’d be overjoyed to lose a bet of my entire net worth that we’re not well into a civilization-threatening climate catastrophe, but by the time I could collect …

  5. Curtis Faith says:

    Though I always hope for new physics, this was a long shot.

    I interpret from the above that you’ve claimed a win. Which given the original team’s inability to reproduce the original results after accounting for the problems with the original experiment, I will concede under the terms of our bet. So that means:

    “If they decide it’s false, John will communicate with Curtis to determine an appropriate set of tasks for his two days based on Curtis’s expertise and John’s needs at that time, these currently include: writing, trading and finance, business and entrepreneurship, programming and software development. Curtis agrees to perform those two working days worth of tasks of John’s choosing within 1 year of the decision that neutrinos cannot go faster than light.”

    So you’ve got two days of my time consulting. Feel free to email me, or contact me on Skype if you want to figure out what you’d like me to do in an interactive fashion.

    My time is at your service. :-)

    If you want, I can come up with some more specific proposals for what I might be able to do to give you some place to start.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks very much! I’m glad you conceded—that’s very honorable of you. So did Frederik de Roo. He is starting to pay off his debt by writing some blog articles explaining why the heating effect of carbon dioxide (the ‘forcing’) grows logarithmically with the carbon dioxide concentration—instead of, say, linearly.

      I’ll think a bit about how you could help the Azimuth Project. I’m also open to suggestions… as long as the time you spend generating those suggestions doesn’t count as part of the 2 days of work.

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