Breaking the speed limit

Scientists have found neutrinos that seem to be traveling faster than the speed of light, which, according to the laws of physics since Einstein, is supposed to be impossible:

Puzzling results from Cern, home of the LHC, have confounded physicists – because it appears subatomic particles have exceeded the speed of light.

Neutrinos sent through the ground from Cern toward the Gran Sasso laboratory 732km away seemed to show up a tiny fraction of a second early.

The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics – will be put online for scrutiny by other scientists.

In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

“We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

“We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

“When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

The speed of light is the Universe’s ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics – as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his special theory of relativity – depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.

Thousands of experiments have been undertaken to measure it ever more precisely, and no result has ever spotted a particle breaking the limit.

But Dr Ereditato and his colleagues have been carrying out an experiment for the last three years that seems to suggest neutrinos have done just that.

Neutrinos come in a number of types, and have recently been seen to switch spontaneously from one type to another.

The team prepares a beam of just one type, muon neutrinos, sending them from Cern to an underground laboratory at Gran Sasso in Italy to see how many show up as a different type, tau neutrinos.

In the course of doing the experiments, the researchers noticed that the particles showed up a few billionths of a second sooner than light would over the same distance.

The team measured the travel times of neutrino bunches some 15,000 times, and have reached a level of statistical significance that in scientific circles would count as a formal discovery.

But the group understands that what are known as “systematic errors” could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.

“My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing – then I would be relieved,” Dr Ereditato said.

But for now, he explained, “we are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result – because it is crazy”.

“And of course the consequences can be very serious.”

via BBC News – Speed-of-light experiments give baffling result at Cern.

I know exactly what our readers Webmonk and tODD will say:  The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal.  Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.  (I know:  Maybe the neutrinos have just jumped into the future.)  Fine, fine.  I hope they will give us their explanation.  I hope they and other of you science types will allow for a mental experiment and instruct us about what difference this would make if it were, in fact, true that some things can go faster than light.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    If memory serves me correctly, I believe it was Cool Papa Bell – a star of the negro baseball leagues – who claimed that he was so fast that when he turned off the light switch at the door to his room at night when going to bed, he would be under the covers and snoring before the room had turned dark. So all along it was neutrinos?

  • Pete

    If memory serves me correctly, I believe it was Cool Papa Bell – a star of the negro baseball leagues – who claimed that he was so fast that when he turned off the light switch at the door to his room at night when going to bed, he would be under the covers and snoring before the room had turned dark. So all along it was neutrinos?

  • WebMonk

    They haven’t gotten it wrong (well, not completely), just heavily sensationalized.

    The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics …

    … one of the pillars of modern science will come tumbling down.

    … much of modern physics … depends on the idea that nothing can exceed [the speed of light].

    Poppycock and nonsense.

    This is getting a lot of publicity, but they are measuring muon neutrinos which have been measured lots and lots of times in the past using lots of different methods – they’ve never been measured going faster than light.

    The scientists are very clearly stating that they aren’t making any claims about these things definitely going faster than light; they’ve stated over and over that they are looking for outside confirmation because they can’t track down why they’re seeing this effect; they’ve specifically suggested the possibility of systematic errors; they are asking other facilities to run the experiment on their equipment to help confirm or rule out systematic errors.

    But, as is typical, reporters are sensationalizing this into being the overturning of physics!!! Whatever. Standard stuff.

    I’d give it a 90% chance that it’s a systematic error somewhere, and a 10% chance that there’s something new and cool discovered, but not neutrinos moving faster than c.

  • WebMonk

    They haven’t gotten it wrong (well, not completely), just heavily sensationalized.

    The result – which threatens to upend a century of physics …

    … one of the pillars of modern science will come tumbling down.

    … much of modern physics … depends on the idea that nothing can exceed [the speed of light].

    Poppycock and nonsense.

    This is getting a lot of publicity, but they are measuring muon neutrinos which have been measured lots and lots of times in the past using lots of different methods – they’ve never been measured going faster than light.

    The scientists are very clearly stating that they aren’t making any claims about these things definitely going faster than light; they’ve stated over and over that they are looking for outside confirmation because they can’t track down why they’re seeing this effect; they’ve specifically suggested the possibility of systematic errors; they are asking other facilities to run the experiment on their equipment to help confirm or rule out systematic errors.

    But, as is typical, reporters are sensationalizing this into being the overturning of physics!!! Whatever. Standard stuff.

    I’d give it a 90% chance that it’s a systematic error somewhere, and a 10% chance that there’s something new and cool discovered, but not neutrinos moving faster than c.

  • WebMonk

    Oh bugger. I guess I forgot to close off some blockquotes. Sorry everyone. Could a fix be made?

    Everything from “Poppycock” and on shouldn’t have been part of any quotes.

  • WebMonk

    Oh bugger. I guess I forgot to close off some blockquotes. Sorry everyone. Could a fix be made?

    Everything from “Poppycock” and on shouldn’t have been part of any quotes.

  • WebMonk

    Just for random educational purposes, one of the best examples of neutrinos most definitely not moving faster than light is the measurement of the SN 1987A supernova.

    According to the expected chain of events in a supernova of that type, a blast of neutrinos should occur a couple hours before the visible light effects of the supernova happen. When SN1987A happened, that’s exactly what was seen – about 4 hours before the visible light from the supernova arrived, there was a large increase in neutrinos detected from the star. They traveled for over 160,000 years from that star, staying exactly a couple hours ahead of the light the entire way.

    If they had been traveling faster than light at the rate which CERN’s measurements have indicated, the blast of neutrinos would have arrived over 4 years ahead of the light from that supernova. But, that’s not what was seen.

  • WebMonk

    Just for random educational purposes, one of the best examples of neutrinos most definitely not moving faster than light is the measurement of the SN 1987A supernova.

    According to the expected chain of events in a supernova of that type, a blast of neutrinos should occur a couple hours before the visible light effects of the supernova happen. When SN1987A happened, that’s exactly what was seen – about 4 hours before the visible light from the supernova arrived, there was a large increase in neutrinos detected from the star. They traveled for over 160,000 years from that star, staying exactly a couple hours ahead of the light the entire way.

    If they had been traveling faster than light at the rate which CERN’s measurements have indicated, the blast of neutrinos would have arrived over 4 years ahead of the light from that supernova. But, that’s not what was seen.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Conceptually, why is it so hard to think something can travel faster than light? After all, we all know that Warp speed is based precisely on this concept. I’ve seen it happen on TV and the movies. So, I’m convinced.

    : )

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Conceptually, why is it so hard to think something can travel faster than light? After all, we all know that Warp speed is based precisely on this concept. I’ve seen it happen on TV and the movies. So, I’m convinced.

    : )

  • Tom Hering

    Doesn’t the Enterprise actually travel slower than light, but through distorted (warped) spacetime?

  • Tom Hering

    Doesn’t the Enterprise actually travel slower than light, but through distorted (warped) spacetime?

  • Mockingbird

    A joke making the rounds on the internet….

    ==========
    The bartender says, “We don’t get many faster-than-light neutrinos in here.”

    A neutrino walks into a bar.
    =========

  • Mockingbird

    A joke making the rounds on the internet….

    ==========
    The bartender says, “We don’t get many faster-than-light neutrinos in here.”

    A neutrino walks into a bar.
    =========

  • http://takethestand.net Andrew DeLoach

    Wow. Reread this section just once:

    In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

    “We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

    “We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

    “When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

    Now imagine these scientists were talking about the theory of evolution.

  • http://takethestand.net Andrew DeLoach

    Wow. Reread this section just once:

    In the meantime, the group says it is being very cautious about its claims.

    “We tried to find all possible explanations for this,” said report author Antonio Ereditato of the Opera collaboration.

    “We wanted to find a mistake – trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects – and we didn’t,” he told BBC News.

    “When you don’t find anything, then you say ‘Well, now I’m forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this.’”

    Now imagine these scientists were talking about the theory of evolution.

  • Carl Vehse

    #2: “The scientists are very clearly stating that they aren’t making any claims about these things definitely going faster than light; they’ve stated over and over that they are looking for outside confirmation”

    In 1676 Lutheran astronomer, Ole Roemer, claimed his measurements showed that the speed of light was finite. While a few scientists (e.g., Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens) supported Roemer, the general scientific community did not (they considered the speed of light infinitely fast), until additional experiments were reported by James Bradley almost two decades after Roemer’s death in 1710.

  • Carl Vehse

    #2: “The scientists are very clearly stating that they aren’t making any claims about these things definitely going faster than light; they’ve stated over and over that they are looking for outside confirmation”

    In 1676 Lutheran astronomer, Ole Roemer, claimed his measurements showed that the speed of light was finite. While a few scientists (e.g., Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens) supported Roemer, the general scientific community did not (they considered the speed of light infinitely fast), until additional experiments were reported by James Bradley almost two decades after Roemer’s death in 1710.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal. Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    The journalists have it all wrong and this is not that big a deal. Surely a mistake, something that has another explanation.

  • WebMonk

    Since no one else has jumped in I’ll post.

    What difference would it make if it turns out neutrinos can move faster than light?

    None whatsoever, at least on the scale of overturning physics-as-we-know-it, as so many articles are breathlessly repeating. It would open up new avenues of investigation and would require some pretty serious adjustments to what we think about neutrinos and their properties.

    However, it wouldn’t be anything near “overturning physics”, or “proving Einstein wrong”, or anything like that. It would actually have a lot more effect on the Standard Model of subatomic particles than it would on Relativity.

    Nonetheless, unless there is something EXTREMELY special about the neutrinos they are creating, there is either an error in their calculations, or there are some unknown (or merely un-accounted) effects from the outside. (such as changes in the gravitational field associated with passing through the earth)

  • WebMonk

    Since no one else has jumped in I’ll post.

    What difference would it make if it turns out neutrinos can move faster than light?

    None whatsoever, at least on the scale of overturning physics-as-we-know-it, as so many articles are breathlessly repeating. It would open up new avenues of investigation and would require some pretty serious adjustments to what we think about neutrinos and their properties.

    However, it wouldn’t be anything near “overturning physics”, or “proving Einstein wrong”, or anything like that. It would actually have a lot more effect on the Standard Model of subatomic particles than it would on Relativity.

    Nonetheless, unless there is something EXTREMELY special about the neutrinos they are creating, there is either an error in their calculations, or there are some unknown (or merely un-accounted) effects from the outside. (such as changes in the gravitational field associated with passing through the earth)

  • WebMonk

    And just to cover all my bases – there are some aspects of string theory which allow for places in the standard model which have particles (such as neutrinos) to move faster than light. (and only faster than light)

    I didn’t mention this before because there are versions of string theory that allow for just about anything. :-)

    But, since it popped to my mind, I figured I would put it up here.

  • WebMonk

    And just to cover all my bases – there are some aspects of string theory which allow for places in the standard model which have particles (such as neutrinos) to move faster than light. (and only faster than light)

    I didn’t mention this before because there are versions of string theory that allow for just about anything. :-)

    But, since it popped to my mind, I figured I would put it up here.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself (@10). Plus, I didn’t want Dr. Veith’s prophecy to fail, requiring him to be stoned. I wrote what I did out of love.

    Anyhow, this is pretty far outside of my area of expertise — I don’t really get neutrinos — but I’m not particularly of the opinion that the journalists are horribly butchering this story.

    I do suspect that the results are unlikely to pan out. Other scientists will be unable to duplicate the results, or errors will be discovered. And reported, quietly, and mainly in niche publications. The history of potentially ground-changing science stories backs me up on that.

    I think WebMonk asks a good question, though (@11). While interesting from a trivia point of view (“Hey, didja know neutrinos can move faster than light?” “No kiddin’!”), it’s not clear to me what that would mean.

    Maybe it’s because, again, I don’t really get neutrinos, but I doubt it would be the wholesale disproving of Einstein’s theories that some may be seeing in this story.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself (@10). Plus, I didn’t want Dr. Veith’s prophecy to fail, requiring him to be stoned. I wrote what I did out of love.

    Anyhow, this is pretty far outside of my area of expertise — I don’t really get neutrinos — but I’m not particularly of the opinion that the journalists are horribly butchering this story.

    I do suspect that the results are unlikely to pan out. Other scientists will be unable to duplicate the results, or errors will be discovered. And reported, quietly, and mainly in niche publications. The history of potentially ground-changing science stories backs me up on that.

    I think WebMonk asks a good question, though (@11). While interesting from a trivia point of view (“Hey, didja know neutrinos can move faster than light?” “No kiddin’!”), it’s not clear to me what that would mean.

    Maybe it’s because, again, I don’t really get neutrinos, but I doubt it would be the wholesale disproving of Einstein’s theories that some may be seeing in this story.

  • Pingback: Introducing neutrinos: traveling faster than possible light « Strengthened by Grace

  • Pingback: Introducing neutrinos: traveling faster than possible light « Strengthened by Grace

  • Pingback: Obeying the cosmic speed limit

  • Pingback: Obeying the cosmic speed limit