I know I’m quite late in getting to this topic, especially as it’s been making its rounds all over the web. But aside from my computer being down, I was also hesitant to jump the gun on it without knowing more. In this so-called “Information Age” of the never ending news cycle, it’s easy for all kinds of claims to be made and immediately proliferated across the endless mediums of data – even if they might be mistaken, falsified, or misunderstood.
But it also means that the entire world is scrutinizing any given report, allowing a sort of global peer-review to take hold and determine the validity of the claims made. With that being said, I think it’s been long enough to determine that this remarkable discovery is worth some serious analysis, even if it’s not yet certain.
The claim in question, for those not yet aware, is that subatomic particles known as neutrinos have gone faster than the speed of light, which is essentially an iron-clad “speed limit” established in Einstein’s universally accepted Theory of Relativity. Now, I’m aware there is a lot of background information to cover here, so I’ll do my best to do so clearly and concisely; if all else fails, I’ve got links to the relevant sources. I’m going to consider this practice for writing more science-based articles, so by all means, scrutinize my writings intensely. Otherwise, this blog gives a nice and brief summary.
Firstly, neutrinos are very strange things to begin with. They’re elementary particles, meaning that they are as small as matter gets. Despite what we learned in grade school science, electrons – which are found in atoms, the smallest unit of matter – are not the smallest component of matter, though they too are elementary particles. I had a hard enough time wrapping my head around the existence of atoms, let along electrons, let alone something even smaller! In fact, neutrinos aside from being so small, are also electrically neutral, which means that unlike most types of matter, big or small, they can’t be acted upon my electromagnetic force. This gives them the ability to pass through matter with ease. As this New York Times report notes:
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. Moreover, 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.
Hence why scientists are so interested. The OPERA experiment mentioned in the quote refers to the European project that first reported this finding: the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus, which is based in the San Grasso Lab in Italy. In turn, this group is part of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, best known for it’s Large Hadron Collider (though that played no part in this experiment). Basically, a beam of neutrinos from the main CERN laboratory based in Geneva, Switzerland was fired to the San Grasso facility in Italy. All of their highly precise measuring equipment found it to have arrived faster than the speed of light – not by a huge amount, but enough to merit much interest and speculation. For anyone that is interested, they first posted these results here.
The reason this is such a big deal, as I mentioned earlier, is that it would defy Einstein’s Theory of Relatively, which is a major basis for the nature of reality (and is made up of two other theories; for the sake of simplicity I won’t get into specifics. The speed of light is supposed to be a universal constant: no form of matter can transcend, because it would require infinite energy to do so (and that in turn doesn’t exist). As an MSNBC article succinctly explains:
Einstein’s theory, which he proposed in 1905, describes the relativity of motion, particularly the motion of anything moving at or close to the speed of light. At the time, people believed that light waves, just as sound waves, ocean waves or shock waves, had to travel through a medium. But rather than air, water or ground, they believed light waves traveled through a substance called ether, less tangible than air, that pervaded the universe.
Scientists assumed that the laws of physics would be different for an object at rest with respect to the ether, and with the proper experiments it would be possible to figure out what was truly at rest, according to Peter Galison, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard University. [Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings]
“Einstein got rid of that,” Galison said. “There are no physical properties that go with the statement ‘I am truly at rest.’ That’s really what special relativity is about.”
In other words, the properties of physics are the same for me whether I am riding my bicycle or sitting on a park bench. Special relativity, however, does not apply to acceleration. Einstein would tackle this later in his general theory of relativity.
Special relativity is also based on a second assumption that gives the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — in a vacuum a special status. Einstein postulated that light always travels at the same speed for every observer, regardless of that observer’s speed, Galison explained.
So, if you have a fast enough car, in theory, you could catch up to a bullet. But you could never catch up to, or even reduce the apparent speed of a pulse of light, regardless of whether you were driving toward it or away from it.
Thus, the stakes are high. If this result is confirmed to be accurate, then it would undo a lot of what we’ve based our understanding of the universe on. I don’t want to overstate this point, however: it’s not like physics as we know it would be jeopardized and we’d have to start from scratch. But it does means we’d have to re-assess a lot of what we’ve held as matter of fact, including more than a century of experiments and developments in physics.
If the finding of the OPERA experiment does pan out, the implications are much more mind-bending. Under special relativity, if something travels faster than the speed of light, it goes backwards in time. Such a proposition could interfere with the basic rule that cause precedes effect, called causality.
“The reason a lot of physicists are very unmoved by these claims is that it could make causality itself very problematic,” Galison said. In other words, it could raise the prospect of time travel.
There is another issue too. Einstein introduced the speed of light as a mathematical constant, c. If neutrinos can indeed exceed the speed of light, then c loses its special status, giving rise to a host of other problems elsewhere in physics, where c has been used in calculations, such as the famous formula E=mc2.
It would also call into question all the experiments done to test the notions of special relativity, and why they had never yielded anything like this. After all, scientists didn’t just assume all of this was true: it’s remained rock-solid since the very day Einstein postulated it. That’s precisely why there’s been so much surprise and incredulity. On the other hand, given the robust nature of the technology involved, it seems unlikely – though by no means impossible – for such an error in measurement to have been made.
Then there is the middle-ground that suggests that neutrinos, even if they are moving that fast, haven’t violated the theory of relativity at all. The exact origin of those tested is unknown, and they may simple be a firm that would fit neatly into the established foundations of physics. I won’t get into the complex arguments made in this particular case, but it’s another angle to consider.
It is for these reasons that most scientists and scientific publications have remained more-or-less neutral on the subject pending more experiments. Indeed, I’m not scientist myself, and I’m very skeptical of trying to take a position on one side or the other just yet. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’ll take a lot more confirmation – and most importantly, repeated observations in tests – to give this any solid credence; there are important questions to consider too. It’s just interesting, and frankly fun, to consider the implications regardless.
Indeed, to their credit, many of the senior scientists involved wanted to distance themselves from any publication of this study barring more research. And even those that agreed to publish it did so for the sake of peer-review and analysis. That is what I love about science: it’s all about fact-checking, evidence, and a rigorous standard for truth. This is a textbook example of how any claim or argument should be treated and dealt with. I always get excited to see science work in such an ideal way.
Lastly, I’ve noticed a popular new meme that has emerged that claims Nikola Tesla had predicted all this almost a century ago. Sadly, as neat as that would’ve been, this isn’t the case. Even I had been susceptible to it, until I did further research. Always check your facts folks! Never shy from doubt or inquiry, and always consult as many credible opinions, perspectives, and source as possible. The scientific way of doing things is useful far beyond the realm of science.