There was an earthquake this week. Not a real one, but a piece of news that shook the world of physics. A team of scientists claimed to have measured some particles moving faster than the speed of light.
The experiment involved a beam of neutrinos sent from a giant particle accelerator, the Super Proton Synchotron, at the facilities of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland to a special neutrino detector under Gran Sasso mountain in Italy, 730 kilometers away. What shocked the researchers was that the neutrinos appeared to arrive at the detector 60 nanoseconds sooner than they would have if they’d been travelling at the speed of light. Now, 60 billionths of a second may not seem like much, but Einstein’s theories of relativity say that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. So, if true, this experiment might not only prove the great Einstein wrong, but even force a significant shift in thinking about the laws of the universe.
Maybe that’s why so many reputable scientists don’t believe it.
There’s been endless speculation since the result was announced, including a lot of criticism that the findings should not have been announced until they’d been properly verified and duplicated. Even though the experiments took place over three years and the experimental data is rated as having a very high degree of reliability, most don’t believe it. They think there’s been an error somewhere. The results contradict earlier measurements involving neutrinos, including neutrinos from supernovae which were not found to have outraced the photons from the star explosions. And, after all, neutrinos are notoriously hard to measure. Besides, most scientists would rather bet on Einstein than some upstarts, even if they do have a particle accelerator.
But most importantly, there’s a lot at stake here. Relativity would have to be scrapped or seriously rejigged, and even causality—the law of cause and effect—would be on the trash heap. Then where will we be?
If my computer starts submitting posts before I even hit the ENTER key, who knows how much trouble I could get myself into?