New research says Einstein was wrong ... relatively speaking
Published 23/09/2011 | 10:01
SCIENTISTS at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) have potentially shattered one physics basic laws after they broke the speed of light.
An experiment was conducted in which neutrinos were sent through the ground from CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, toward the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy, 732km away. The results appeared to show that subatomic particles traveled slightly faster that the speed of light.
If the results are true, Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity could be under scrutiny from the scientific community. In the 1905 paper, Einstein stated that the speed of light (1,080 million kph) is a universal constant and nothing can exceed it.
The result, which threatens to upend a century of physics, will be put online for scrutiny by other scientists.
“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Dr. Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.
“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 scrutinise this.’”
A total of 15,000 beams of neutrinos, tiny particles that permeate the universe, were fired over a period of three years, across 732km from CERN towards Gran Sasso, where they were picked up by giant detectors.
Light would have covered the distance in around 2.4 thousandths of a second, but the neutrinos took 60 nanoseconds, or 60 billionths of a second, less than light beams would have taken.
"It is a tiny difference," said Dr Ereditato, who also works at Switzerland’s Berne University, "but conceptually it is incredibly important. The finding is so startling that, for the moment, everybody should be very prudent."
Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure the speed of light ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.
But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.
If the results prove to be true, the practical implications could mean that interstellar travel as well as time-machines could, at least in theory, be possible.
But the group understands that what are known as "systematic errors" could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.
"My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing. Then I would be relieved," Dr Ereditato said.
But for now, he explained, "we are not claiming things; we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result, because it is crazy".
"And of course the consequences can be very serious."