Physicists observe neutrinos moving faster-than-light, perhaps throwing Einstein's theory asunder

Michael Santo's picture

Scientists themselves are dumbfounded by the apparent observation of subatomic particles (neutrinos) traveling faster than light. If true, the finding might undermine one of the fundamental pillars of physics – Einstein’s maxim that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, posited in his 1905 theory of special relativity.

The researchers are so astounded that they are asking other laboratories to independently verify their findings before they publish their results. "This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, who was not involved in the experiment.

According to Albert Einstein’s theory, encapsulated in the famous e (equals) mc squared equation, nothing can travel faster than light. Under the special theory of relativity, a particle (that has mass) with subluminal (in the range of the speed of light) velocity needs infinite energy to accelerate to the speed of light, although special relativity does not forbid the existence of particles that travel faster than light at all times. These hypothetical particles were dubbed tachyons in the 1960’s by a group of physicists positing their existence, which has so far not been demonstrated.

But the present particles which have apparently breached that boundary are neutrinos, particles which have been known to physics for decades now. Neutrinos are electrically neutral, weakly interacting subatomic particles which usually travel close to the speed of light and which pass through ordinary matter almost unaffected. Neutrinos have a very small, but nonzero mass. They are very similar to the electron, but without the charge.

And because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they are not affected by the electromagnetic forces which act on electrons. Rather, neutrinos are affected only by the weak sub-atomic force of much shorter range than electromagnetism, and are therefore able to pass through great distances within matter without being affected by it. Neutrinos also interact gravitationally with other particles.

CERN says a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. The margin of error was just 10 nanoseconds, which means even taking that possibility into account, the speed achieved still falls well outside the speed-of-light limit. Given the enormity of the find, they spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there were no flaws in the experiment.

The CERN researchers are now looking to the United States and Japan to confirm the results. Scientists agree that if the results are confirmed, it would force a fundamental rethinking of the laws of nature, starting with the special theory of relativity proposed by Einstein in 1905. Special relativity explains everything from the Big Bang to black holes, so the finding, if confirmed, would turn those propositions upside down.


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