Speed faster than light may not be just a flight of fancy


If the outcome can be verified the discovery would have the potential to derail much of what we understand as current physics, writes DICK AHLSTROM

A TEAM of scientists believes it may have demolished a fundamental truth – that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. However, many of their peers are sceptical.

The international scientific community has been abuzz following a news release on Thursday evening that said researchers had clocked tiny, light-weight particles of matter called neutrinos zooming along 0.002 per cent faster than the speed of light.

If their findings prove to be true then it represents one of the biggest science stories of the century. It is a monumental thing to break nature’s cosmic speed limit, to make something go faster than light speed, not least because it potentially wrecks one of physicist Albert Einstein’s fundamental theories, called special relativity.

Scientists have been trying to prove and disprove Einstein’s discoveries for more than a century, and all the experiments agreed with his theories about how the cosmos works. Until now.

Researchers at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, were timing how long it took a beam of neutrinos to travel the 730km from their base at Cern to Italy’s Gran Sasso laboratory.

It is like firing a bullet and counting off the seconds until it strikes a target.

Only in this case the scientists working on an experiment called Opera were firing neutrinos instead of bullets and measuring their arrival at the Italian laboratory to accuracies measured in 10 billionths of a second.

Accuracy and precision was everything with the experiment and so the scientists measured the distance from Cern to Gran Sasso to within 20cm accuracy.

Then all they had to do was fire off some neutrinos and count the seconds until they arrived at the target.

To their surprise, however, they found that the neutrinos were breaking the rules, getting to their destination too fast. They repeated their experiments, checking all details, before concluding that as near as they could tell, the particles had broken light speed.

“This result comes as a complete surprise,” according to Antonio Ereditato, an Opera collaborator from the University of Bern. The meaning of it all was just too profound, too fundamental to our long-held theories about the nature of the cosmos.

“The potential impact on science is too large to draw immediate conclusions or attempt physics interpretations,” he said in advance of a special scientific seminar thrown together at haste yesterday at Cern.

Most scientists believe however that Einstein’s special relativity theory will prevail and that the Cern findings will prove to be what is known as an artefact, an erroneous finding that looks like truth.

“My money is on a systematic effect that they can’t quite put their finger on,” said Prof Luke Drury, one of Ireland’s leading physicists based at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

He acknowledged that the finding had the potential to pull down chunks of what we understand of current physics.

“It is very hard to see how you could reconcile this with special relativity,” Prof Drury said.

“It also raises the possibility of achieving that great science fiction goal of being able to travel through time. “You would know the lottery numbers before the lottery was drawn,” he suggested.

Challenging such a fundamental part of physics however will not be easy. “The claim is so extraordinary it will need extraordinary proof,” he said.

The new results also run counter to decades of experimental findings that have shown repeatedly that no particle that has any mass, no matter how small, can exceed light speed, says Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, a physicist at the Waterford Institute of Technology.

“The particles get so far but no further as soon as they get near light speed.”

Then there are the findings coming from astrophysics. Scientists clocked the arrival of six bursts of neutrinos coming from a star explosion, supernova 1987A. Arriving right behind them came light from the star, but close behind not the three to five days later as might have been expected had the neutrinos been moving faster than light speed.

Effectively, the Opera scientists did the only thing that they could with such red hot findings – they tossed them out for others to prove or disprove.

“When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artefact of the measurement to account for it, it is normal practice to invite broader scrutiny.

“And this is exactly what the Opera collaboration is doing, it is good scientific practice,” Cern research director Sergio Bertolucci said.

While we wait to see if the findings can be picked apart we can savour the possibility that maybe the universe really has extra dimensions, worm holes in space time that will let us visit the future, even if only to pick a few winning lotto numbers.