September 23, 2011
Have CERN Experiments Broken The Speed Of Light?
Researchers at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) are reporting that they have discovered sub-atomic particles moving faster than the speed of light -- a finding which, if verified, could well turn the fundamental laws of the universe on their ear.
According to various media reports Thursday, the experiment responsible for the discovery involved sending 15,000 beams of tiny particles known as neutrinos from the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso facility in Italy some 500 miles (730 km) away.
The neutrinos were fired over a period of three years, and reportedly arrived at their destination 60 nanoseconds, or 60 billionths of a second, more quickly than light beams would have.
If those results can be confirmed, it would be inconsistent with Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity. According to that 1905 theory, the speed of light is a "cosmic constant," and that there is nothing in the universe that can travel faster.
That assertion has, according to the Telegraph, withstood more than a century of testing and remains one of the pillars of the Standard Model of physics, "which attempts to describe the way the universe and everything in it works."
"This result comes as a complete surprise," Antonio Ereditato, a physicist and the spokesman for the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus or OPERA experiment, told the AFP. "We wanted to measure the speed of neutrinos, but we didn't expect to find anything special."
The team reported that they spent approximately half a year "checking, testing, controlling and rechecking everything" before making a public announcement, he told the news agency.
"We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing," he added, in a separate interview with the Telegraph. "We now want colleagues to check them independently."
What that will entail, according to what CERN spokesman James Gilles told Frank Jordans and Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press (AP), is asking other scientists to review and, if possible, repeat the measurements. Researchers at Chicago-based Fermilab (who in 2007 had recorded similar findings but "with a giant margin of error that undercut its scientific significance," according to the AP) told Jordans and Borenstein that they planned to begin such work in the near future.
"We tried to find all possible explanations for this," Ereditato explained to BBC News Science and Technology Reporter Jason Palmer. "We 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 scrutinize this.'"
The discovery, according to Robert Evans of Reuters, could blur the lines between science and science fiction. After all, as Evans wrote on Thursday, "if the light-speed barrier can be overcome, time travel might theoretically become possible."
On the Net:
- European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN)
- Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA)