Breaking the law…?

October 03 2011


Jenny Lambourne examines scientists’ claims of beating the universe’s speed limit and its consequences

If true, it may prove to be the most significant scientific discovery of the century. New findings by scientists in Switzerland have reported that they have found sub atomic particles that can travel faster than the speed of light. And the realm of physics has been in uproar since.

A report published by the CERN laboratory, home of the Hadron Collider, appears to show results of sub atomic particles travelling faster than the “cosmic constant” of the universe’s speed limit.

The experiment dubbed OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), involved the sending of sub atomic particles called neutrinos through the earth from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to an underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy across a distance of 730km.

The scientists at CERN sent muon neutrinos from their Swiss laboratory and recorded the time it took for their arrival at the Italian INFN laboratory in the form of tau neutrinos. If Einstein’s theory is correct, the neutrinos could not have exceeded the speed of light which is measured at 299,792,458 metres per second, roughly 700 million miles per hour.

According to the CERN results, the neutrinos travelled at 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Perhaps this seems small yet when you think that in one nanosecond, a beam of light can travel about one foot, it is incredible to consider these neutrinos covering 60 feet in the same time.

In the simplest of terms, according to what we think we know, this should not be possible.

Einstein’s theory of special relativity is based upon the understanding that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and his theory is one of the foundations of the Standard Model of physics.

If you follow the theory of relativity, as you approach the speed of light time slows, you get heavier and also flatter. But if you can go faster than the speed of light then the stuff of so many movies and comic books occurs: time goes backwards. Cause and effect are no longer solidified.  Einstein’s theories are based upon the fact that this is impossible and yet the findings from the Swiss laboratory seem to be suggesting that they don’t match this thinking.

As a result, CERN have cautiously published their findings having rerun the experiment a further 16,000 times or so over the course of two years. Having found no errors in their data, they are turning to the rest of the scientific world to prove them wrong and put Einstein’s theories back into their place as a cornerstone of modern physics.

Antonio Ereditato, author of the CERN’s report, said they wanted to “find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes or nasty effects – and we didn’t.

“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this’.”

Understandably, these revelations are going to take some time to investigate. One team who will be particularly interested in doing so will be that involved in the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS) in Minnesota that published similar findings in 2007. At the time, there was much less confidence and criticism arose concerning the detector’s position. Four years later and the CERN team are offering up similar results.

At the same time, however, these results go against other existing measurements. In 1987, a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud occured. A detector in Japan picked up measurements of neutrinos from the explosion several hours before the light was detected.

Whilst this does not verify that the neutrinos travel faster than light, it does suggest that neutrinos were released first. If the CERN experiments were correct, this suggests that the neutrinos should have been detected years, rather than hours, before the light was detected.

Physicists across the world have already stepped forward to voice their caution on the current findings. Prof Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at Surrey University has said CERN are right to be wary about their findings and declared that he would eat his underwear on live television.

But what if – and it is a large ‘if’, an undeniably scary ‘if’ – they cannot disprove or find error with the results?

New theories would be needed to explain these results and with these, would come the need to rerun, recalculate and rewrite experiments, theories and textbooks. Whole concepts of the entire universe will have to be taken back to the drawing board.

If E=mc2 where a tiny amount of mass m can create large amount of energy E because of the fact that the speed of light c squared is such a ridiculous number, then we have the basis of cosmology, of nuclear physics, of the majority of modern physics. If c is found to be in question, all of this and more will need to be reassessed.

It’s enough to get Sheldon Cooper’s Batman boxers in a twist.

The possibilities are staggering. Most predominantly, perhaps, is that of further dimensions and stretch as far as time travel. Einstein’s theory would remain intact, for instance, if we grant the possibility of more dimensions and it is here string theorists are watching the developments closely.

“Let’s say you go from London to Sydney – you fly around the Earth. The other way to do it is to go through digging a big tunnel straight through the Earth, and that’s the shortcut,” explained Prof Brian Cox, who has previously worked for CERN.

“In some ways extra dimensions can behave like that and … the neutrinos could be taking a shortcut through another dimension.”

Before you dig out your copy of Back to the Future and start looking wistfully at your Ford Fiesta, this is speculation, but these results are calling for extraordinary thinking outside of what we think we know.

Dr Ereditato and his team are in the unique position of inviting anyone to disprove their findings before having to consider the implications. “My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved,” he said.

“We are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result – because it is crazy.”

If these results are not disproved, “crazy” doesn’t even come close. But what is vital here is that this is very much a work in progress. CERN has cautiously published their findings, held a seminar to discuss their paper and invited others within their field to help explain their results. They have been professional and rightly wary of their results, opening up their work for debate and criticism. And bringing such a debate into the public domain can only be a good thing.


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