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Originally published September 22, 2011 at 7:51 PM | Page modified September 23, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Weird particles faster than light, test suggests

One of the pillars of physics and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity — that nothing can go faster than the speed of light — was rocked Thursday.

The New York Times

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Roll over, Einstein?

One of the pillars of physics and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity — that nothing can go faster than the speed of light — was rocked Thursday.

European researchers said they clocked an oddball type of subatomic particle called a neutrino going faster than the 186,282 miles per second long been considered the cosmic speed limit.

If true, the result would change the world. But that "if" is enormous.

Even before the European physicists had presented their results — in a paper that appeared on the physics website www.arXiv.org Thursday night and in a seminar at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, to be held Friday — a chorus of physicists had risen up on blogs and elsewhere arguing it was far too soon to give up on Einstein and that there probably was some experimental error.

"These guys have done their level best, but before throwing Einstein on the bonfire, you would like to see an independent experiment," said John Ellis, a CERN theorist who has published work on the speeds of the ghostly particles known as neutrinos.

The researchers themselves are not ready to proclaim a discovery and are asking other physicists to independently try to verify their findings.

"The feeling that most people have is this can't be right, this can't be real," said James Gillies, a CERN spokesman.

Going faster than light is something that is not supposed to happen according to Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity, the one made famous by the equation E equals mc squared.

According to scientists familiar with the paper, the neutrinos were fired from a particle accelerator at CERN outside Geneva, where they were created, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy, 454 miles away, about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. Scientists calculated the margin of error at 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant.

Even this small deviation would open up the possibility of time travel and play havoc with longstanding notions of cause and effect. Einstein himself — author of modern physics — said that if you could send a message faster than light, "You could send a telegram to the past."

Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, called the new claim "flabbergasting."

"If it is true," he said, "then we truly haven't understood anything about anything. It looks too big to be true. The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong."

The group reporting the results is known as OPERA, for Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus. Antonio Ereditato, the University of Bern physicist who heads the group, agreed with de Rujula and others who expressed shock. He told the BBC that OPERA — after much internal discussion — had decided to put its results out there to have them scrutinized.

"My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing," Ereditato told the BBC. "Then I would be relieved."

Drew Baden, chairman of the physics department at the University of Maryland, said it is far more likely that there are measurement errors or some kind of fluke. Tracking neutrinos is difficult, he said.

"This is ridiculous what they're putting out," Baden said. "Until this is verified by another group, it's flying carpets. It's cool, but ... ."

Neutrinos are among the weirdest denizens of the quantum subatomic world. Once believed to be massless and to travel at the speed of light, they can sail through walls and planets like wind through a screen door.

Moreover, they come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel along, an effect the OPERA experiment was designed to detect by comparing 10-microsecond pulses of protons on one end with pulses of neutrinos at the other. de Rujula noted, however, that it was impossible to identify which protons gave birth to which neutrino, leading to statistical uncertainties.

Ellis noted that a similar experiment was reported by a collaboration known as Minos in 2007 on neutrinos created at Fermilab in Illinois and beamed through Earth to the Soudan Mine in Minnesota. That group found, though with less precision, that the neutrino speeds were consistent with the speed of light.

John Learned, a neutrino astronomer at the University of Hawaii, said the results of the OPERA researchers, if true, could be the first hint that neutrinos can take a shortcut through space, through extra dimensions.

"Special relativity only holds in flat space, so if there is a warped fifth dimension, it is possible that on other slices of it, the speed of light is different," said Joe Lykken of Fermilab.

But it is way too soon for such speculation. The OPERA results will generate a rush of experiments aimed at confirming or repudiating it, according to Learned.

"This is revolutionary and will require convincing replication," he said.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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