Neutrinos: Faster Than Light?

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Weird Fact: Right now, scientists around the world are trying to disprove solid data showing subatomic particles traveling faster than light – something Einstein said was impossible.

For three years, scientists have been firing neutrinos some 500 miles under the European landscape towards particle detectors at CERN.

What surprised them was that, on average, the neutrinos appeared to make the journey 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have done.

Though no-one wants to formally admit it yet, the Earth-shattering implication of this experiment is that these subatomic particles are traveling faster than the speed of light.

In his Special Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein declared the speed of light to be the universal speed limit. As a result, modern physics depends on the law that nothing can travel faster than 299,792,458 meters per second.

Thousands of past experiments have failed to demonstrate a single particle breaking this rule outside a vacuum. But now, scientists at the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) may have found otherwise.

Antonio Ereditato, a spokesperson for the 160-member OPERA collaboration, says it’s too early to say Einstein was wrong. Instead, they are simply opening up their results to the greater scientific community and hoping someone else can provide an explanation.

And they are right to be cautious. Scientists’ careers can be destroyed by making premature claims which are later shattered, such as Fleischmann and Pons’ so-called discovery of cold fusion, a process of releasing energy that (if it existed) would have changed the world.

“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” Ereditato told BBC News. “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’.”

Naturally, other scientists are skeptical too. Chang Kee Jung, a neutrino physicist at Stony Brook University in New York, says he’d wager that the result is the product of a systematic error. “I wouldn’t bet my wife and kids because they’d get mad,” he says. “But I’d bet my house.”

Jung, who is the US spokesperson for a similar experiment in Japan called T2K, emphasizes the difficulty of taking accurate measurements. In this case they rely on the Global Positioning System, which can have uncertainties of tens of nanoseconds.

But what if the findings are accurate?

Faster-than-light particles open up a massive bag of worms for physicists. It creates the possibility of sending information back through time; distorting the line between past, present and future; and destroying the laws of cause and effect.

“Cause cannot come after effect and that is absolutely fundamental to our construction of the physical universe, ” said Subir Sarkar, head of particle theory at Oxford University. “If we do not have causality, we are buggered.”