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Leader of Controversial 'Faster-Than-Light' Physics Experiments Resigns

The leader of a European science team that erroneously recorded subatomic particles moving faster than light has resigned his post, amid growing controversy over the flawed experiments.

Professor Antonio Ereditato recently stepped down as project coordinator of the research team known by the acronym, OPERA.  But the Italian scientist says he remains an active member of the 150-member team, which is based at the European Center for Nuclear Research, CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland.

OPERA’s controversial experiments showed that tiny particles known as neutrinos exceeded the speed of light by 60 nanoseconds - or 60 billionths of a second.  Tensions within OPERA began mounting last September when Ereditato decided to publicly announce the group's puzzling findings before they could be independently confirmed or subjected to the traditional scientific peer-review process.  He was criticized despite openly acknowledging the need for more research at different facilities, and urging other scientists to challenge his team’s findings.

The results stirred controversy within the global scientific community because the basic laws of physics dictate that nothing with mass - even the miniscule neutrino - can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

Reports by Nature.com and by Science20.com blog say Ereditato voluntarily submitted his resignation a few days after some of his OPERA colleagues rendered a "no confidence" vote against his leadership of the experiments.  The vote took place less than two weeks after a separate CERN-based team of scientists, the ICARUS collaboration, duplicated one of OPERA's neutrino experiments and announced it had recorded the particles moving exactly at light speed - the expected result.

It turns out that two technical flaws identified in February - a loose fiber optic cable and mistiming by the experiments' master clock - were to blame for the erroneous faster-than-light measurements.

In a statement released Friday, Ereditato said he stood by his decision to announce the controversial findings.  And he insisted that publishing the experiment's "uncomfortable" result was a normal step in the scientific process - forging ahead into the unknown, making corrections and learning from mistakes.

Using CERN's atom-smashing Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the OPERA and ICARUS physics experiments involved firing a batch of neutrinos from a CERN laboratory a distance of 730 kilometers to an underground detector at the Gran Sasso lab in Italy.  More experiments are planned for later this year.

If the original OPERA test results had been correct, they would have disproven Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity - the cornerstone of modern physics.

The acronym OPERA stands for Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tracking Apparatus.

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