Was Einstein Wrong? Subatomic Particles Faster Than Light
Roll over, Einstein?
THE PHYSICS WORLD IS ABUZZ WITH NEWS THAT A GROUP OD EUROPEAN PHYSICISTS PLAN TO ANNOUNCE FRIDAY THAT IT HAS CLOCKED A BURST OF SUBATOMIC PARTICLES KNOWN AS NEUTRINOS BREAKING THE COSMIC SPEED OF LIMIT — the speed of light — that was set by Albert Einstein in 1905.
If true, it is a result that would change the world. But that “if” is enormous.
Even before the European physicists had presented their results — in a paper to appear on the physics website arXiv.org Thursday night and in a seminar at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, on Friday — a chorus of physicists had risen up on blogs and elsewhere arguing that it was way too soon to give up on Einstein and that there was probably some experimental error. Incredible claims require incredible evidence.
“These guys have done their level best, but before throwing Einstein on the bonfire, you would like to see an independent experiment,” said John Ellis, a CERN theorist who has published work on the speeds of the ghostly particles known as neutrinos.
According to scientists familiar with the paper, the neutrinos raced from a particle accelerator at CERN outside Geneva, where they were created, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy, a distance of about 450 miles, about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about .0025 percent (2.5 parts in a hundred thousand).
Even this small deviation would open up the possibility of time travel and play havoc with long-standing notions of cause and effect. Einstein himself — the author of modern physics, whose theory of relativity established the speed of light as the ultimate limit — said that if you could send a message faster than light, “You could send a telegram to the past.”
Alvaro DeRejula, a theorist at CERN, called the claim “flabbergasting.”
“If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything,” he said, adding: “It looks too big to be true. The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong.”
The group that is reporting the results is known as OPERA, for Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus. Antonio Ereditato, the physicist at the University of Bern who heads the group, agreed with DeRejula and others who expressed shock. He told the BBC that OPERA — after much internal discussion — had decided to put its results out there in order to get them scrutinized.
“My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing,” Ereditato told the BBC. “Then I would be relieved.”
Neutrinos are among the weirdest denizens of the weird quantum subatomic world. Once thought to be massless and to travel at the speed of light, they can sail through walls and planets like wind through a screen door. Morever, they come in three varieties and can morph from one form to another as they travel along, an effect that the OPERA experiment was designed to detect by comparing 10-microsecond pulses of protons on one end with pulses of neutrinos at the other. DeRejula pointed out however, that it was impossible to identify which protons gave birth to which neutrino, leading to statistical uncertainties.
Ellis noted that a similar experiment was reported by a collaboration known as Minos in 2007 on neutrinos created at Fermilab in Illinois and beamed through the earth to the Soudan Mine in Minnesota. That group found, though with less precision, that the neutrino speeds were consistent with the speed of light.
Measurements of neutrinos emitted from a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987, moreover, suggested that their speeds differed from light by less than one part in a billion.
John Learned, a neutrino astronomer at the University of Hawaii, said that if the results of the OPERA researchers turned out to be true, it could be the first hint that neutrinos can take a shortcut through space, through extra dimensions. Joe Lykken of Fermilab said, “Special relativity only holds in flat space, so if there is a warped fifth dimension, it is possible that on other slices of it, the speed of light is different.”
But it is way too soon for such mind-bending speculation. The OPERA results will generate a rush of experiments aimed at confirming or repudiating it, according to Learned. “This is revolutionary and will require convincing replication,” he said.