Particles Found to Break Speed of Light

By Robert Evans

A graphic showing a collision at full power is pictured at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experience control room of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin, near Geneva March 30, 2010. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse


An international team of scientists said on Thursday they had recorded sub-atomic particles traveling faster than light — a finding that could overturn one of Einstein’s long-accepted fundamental laws of the universe.

Antonio Ereditato, spokesman for the researchers, told Reuters that measurements taken over three years showed neutrinos pumped from CERN near Geneva to Gran Sasso in Italy had arrived 60 nanoseconds quicker than light would have done.

“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 said.

“We now want colleagues to check them independently.”

If confirmed, the discovery would undermine Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which says that the speed of light is a “cosmic constant” and that nothing in the universe can travel faster.

That assertion, which has withstood over a century of testing, is one of the key elements of the so-called Standard Model of physics, which attempts to describe the way the universe and everything in it works.

The totally unexpected finding emerged from research by a physicists working on an experiment dubbed OPERA run jointly by the CERN particle research center near Geneva and the Gran Sasso Laboratory in central Italy.

A total of 15,000 beams of neutrinos — tiny particles that pervade the cosmos — were fired over a period of 3 years from CERN toward Gran Sasso 730 (500 miles) km away, 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 Ereditato, who also works at Berne University in Switzerland,

“but conceptually it is incredibly important. The finding is so startling that, for the moment, everybody should be very prudent.”

Ereditato declined to speculate on what it might mean if other physicists, who will be officially informed of the discovery at a meeting in CERN on Friday, found that OPERA’s measurements were correct.

“I just don’t want to think of the implications,” he told Reuters.

“We are scientists and work with what we know.”

Much science-fiction literature is based on the idea that, if the light-speed barrier can be overcome, time travel might theoretically become possible.

The existence of the neutrino, an elementary sub-atomic particle with a tiny amount of mass created in radioactive decay or in nuclear reactions such as those in the Sun, was first confirmed in 1934, but it still mystifies researchers.

It can pass through most matter undetected, even over long distances, and without being affected. Millions pass through the human body every day, scientists say.

To reach Gran Sasso, the neutrinos pushed out from a special installation at CERN — also home to the Large Hadron Collider probing the origins of the universe — have to pass through water, air and rock.

The underground Italian laboratory, some 120 km (75 miles) to the south of Rome, is the largest of its type in the world for particle physics and cosmic research.

Around 750 scientists from 22 different countries work there, attracted by the possibility of staging experiments in its three massive halls, protected from cosmic rays by some 1,400 metres (4,200 feet) of rock overhead.


Editing by Tom Miles and Kevin Liffey.

Source: Reuters



Dady Chery

About Dady Chery

Dr. Dady Chery is a Haitian-born journalist, playwright, essayist, and poet. She is the author of "We Have Dared to Be Free: Haiti's Struggle Against Occupation." Her broad interests encompass science, culture, and human rights. She writes extensively about Haiti and world issues such as climate change and social justice. Her many contributions to Haitian news include the first proposal that Haiti’s cholera had been imported by the UN, and the first story describing Haiti’s mineral wealth.

2 comments on “Particles Found to Break Speed of Light

  1. Carlos Gomez on said:

    The folks at CERN are actually very, very understated about any claims to
    overturning relativity. The OPERA experiment referred to here involves
    shooting a neutrino beam through about 730 km of solid rock. The unambiguous detection of the neutrinos at Sasso quite depends on the fact that nothing but a neutrino could fly through that much rock unfazed. But that also means that there is no way to send light at the same time through the same path. So, the experimenters calculate rather than measure the time that light would take (that is, if all that rock were not there) to travel the same distance that the neutrinos covered. The time difference is only 50 nanoseconds, very close to the uncertainty in the synchronisation of the two “clocks” (at Geneva and Grasso) via GPS. Put another way, they are claiming that if you could race light and their neutrinos over the 700 kilometers, the photons would be 18 meters behind when the neutrinos crossed the finish line. There are many sources of error in this very difficult experiment, and the tiny speed difference leaves very little room for error. One final note: Neutrinos from a natural source (supernova 1987a) definitely do not travel faster than light.
    SEE: This does not mean that the measurement is not valid, the CERN team has done heroic calculation and correction and statistics. But it does mean that much more corroboration is needed before everyone believes this.
    The Opera neutrinos are extremely unusual particles even for neutrinos, at 10GEV they would be more relativistic that any particle with mass previously studied, and much more energetic than “natural” neutrinos. It is very possible that the Lorentz equation needs a correction at this extreme state. This could very well be very, very important. But let’s not be hasty.

  2. Dady CheryDady Chery on said:

    Thank you for your well-informed comment Gomez! Interesting that neutrinos aren’t slowed down by solid rock (whereas light obviously is). The applications of this would be phenomenal. We’ll contain our excitement though till the CERN results are checked and rechecked.

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