Einstein ain’t gonna be happy about this

23 Sep

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, c. In fact, nothing with mass can even reach the speed of light. It is the “universal speed limit.” We’ve been saying it for decades. It is one of the main tenets of relativity, a theory which has had a lot of evidence to support it and has not yet been truly called into question. Well, the speed of light as a universal speed limit is being called into question now.

First of all, you need to know about neutrinos. Neutrinos are electrically neutral subatomic particles. They are weakly interacting, which means that they can go through matter without hitting or interacting with anything. In fact, a cascade of neutrinos is raining down on you right now from the cosmos, through the atmosphere, through buildings, through you. Neutrinos were first observed in 1970 at Argonne National Laboratory (See photo at right of the world’s first neutrino observation. A neutrino collides with a proton and creates the three particle paths shown: a proton [short path], a mu-mason [long path] and a pi-mason). We call neutrinos “massless” because they were originally thought to be so, but the truth is that they have been proven to have some mass (because they undergo flavor oscillations–yes, that’s a thing), though very little.

A group of scientists called the OPERA collaboration have taken measurements indicating faster-than-light travel of neutrinos. It has scientists all atwitter. I, for one, can’t stop thinking about the possible implications of such a result. Of course, we all need to take a deep breath because much is yet to be seen. The OPERA scientists themselves are, wisely, being extremely cautious. Particle physics experiments are extremely complicated. This experiment involves using a proton beam at CERN to create the neutrinos and sending them hundreds of miles to an underground detector at Gran Sasso Laboratory. There are many data-altering factors to account for. That isn’t to say that scientists are being in any way careless. They have certainly been very meticulous in their experiment, collaborated with many scientists, reproduced the results in several experiments over three years and used a very large statistical data set. These neutrinos are much higher energy than the ones we study from supernovae, which might explain why we haven’t encountered this phenomenon before… except that there was no energy dependence in their results. There is another team of scientists that claims to have produced greater-than-c velocity measurements for neutrinos, but that they didn’t take the results seriously because they seemed so improbable.

There are many doubts. But it is clear that the OPERA scientists have put a lot of thought and effort into discovering any glitch that could be affecting their results, which is the right thing to do in any experiment, much more so one with results as paradigm-shifting as these. The fact that they feel confident enough to announce it and put a paper out is enough to get everyone thinking. There will be much research done in the future to corroborate or dispute these findings. Only time and billions of dollars of research will tell.

If the findings turn out to be sound, the next step will be discovering theory to explain why neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light. The only thing I can even think of is that the neutrinos somehow shortcut through extra-planar dimensions, which may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Mother nature is pretty crazy sometimes.

Watch the webcast presenting the results.