Scientists said Thursday that they had caught particles moving faster than light, which could change one of Einstein’s basic rules about the universe. Antonio Ereditato, a spokesman for the international group of researchers, said that measurements taken over three years showed that neutrinos sent from CERN near Geneva to Gran Sasso in Italy arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than light would have.
“We have a lot of faith in the results. We have looked for anything that might have changed our measurements, but we haven’t found anything,” he said. “We now want our coworkers to check them on their own.”
If the discovery is true, it would go against Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity from 1905. That theory says that the speed of light is a “cosmic constant” and that nothing can travel faster. This claim, which has been tested for over a century, is one of the most important parts of the so-called Standard Model of physics, which tries to explain how everything in the universe works. Researchers working on an experiment called OPERA at the CERN particle research center near Geneva and the Gran Sasso Laboratory in central Italy made the completely unexpected discovery.
Over the course of three years, CERN sent 15,000 beams of neutrinos, which are tiny particles that are everywhere in the universe, to Gran Sasso, which is 730 km (500 miles) away. There, giant detectors picked up the neutrinos. Light would have traveled the distance in about 2.4 thousandths of a second, but neutrinos did it in only 60 nanoseconds, which is 60 billionths of a second.
“It’s a small difference,” said Ereditato, who also works at Switzerland’s Berne University. “But it’s a huge deal in terms of ideas.” The finding is so shocking that everyone should be very careful for now.”
Ereditato wouldn’t say what it might mean if other physicists, who will find out about the discovery at a meeting at CERN on Friday, agree with OPERA’s measurements.
“I don’t want to think about what it would mean,” he said. “We are scientists, so we work with what we know.”
Many works of science fiction are based on the idea that time travel might be possible if the light-speed barrier could be broken. Neutrinos are elementary subatomic particles with a tiny amount of mass that are made by radioactive decay or nuclear reactions like those in the Sun. Their existence was first proven in 1934, but they still don’t fully understand them.
It can go through most things without being noticed, even over long distances and without changing. Scientists say that millions of them move through the body every day. Neutrinos are sent out from a special installation at CERN, which is also home to the Large Hadron Collider, which is looking into the beginnings of the universe. To get to Gran Sasso, the neutrinos have to go through water, air, and rock.
The underground Italian laboratory, which is about 75 miles south of Rome, is the biggest one of its kind in the world. It is used to study particles and the universe. About 750 scientists from 22 different countries work there because they can do experiments in its three huge halls, which are protected from cosmic rays by a rock ceiling that is about 1,400 meters (4,200 feet) high.
What’s going on at CERN?
Scientists say they have measured the speed of neutrinos, which are tiny particles smaller than atoms and move at 300,006 kilometers per second, which is just a little bit faster than the speed of light.
What’s the meaning of that?
Einstein’s theory of special relativity says that in a vacuum, nothing can move faster than the speed of light because light particles, called photons, don’t have mass. Einstein’s theory wouldn’t make sense if you could show that neutrinos, which are strange subatomic particles with a tiny amount of mass, can move faster.
What are the repercussions?
Einstein’s theory is a key part of the Standard Model of physics, which helps explain everything we know about how the universe works, from black holes to the big bang. If it turns out to be wrong, almost all of modern physics and the basic laws of nature would need to be rethought.
Have the results been shown to be true?
Scientists at CERN took months to check their data before making their announcement because the results were so surprising. But they have asked teams from the United States and Japan to check the results before they are called a real discovery. The data will also be put online overnight so that experts from all over the world can look at it.
Does this mean that E is not equal to MC2?
The idea that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared came from the theory of special relativity. It’s too soon to throw out the most famous equation ever made, but a new finding suggests that a key assumption it is based on, that nothing can move faster than light, may not be entirely true.