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Faster Than Light Particles Discovered By European Scientists?

If this report is true then pretty much everything we know about physics could turn out to be wrong:

A startling find at one of the world’s foremost laboratories that a subatomic particle seemed to move faster than the speed of light has scientists around the world rethinking Albert Einstein and one of the foundations of physics.

Now they are planning to put the finding to further high-speed tests to see if a revolutionary shift in explaining the workings of the universe is needed – or if the European scientists made a mistake.

Researchers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research outside Geneva, who announced the discovery Thursday are still somewhat surprised themselves and planned to detail their findings on Friday.

If these results are confirmed, they won’t change at all the way we live or the way the universe behaves. After all, these particles have presumably been speed demons for billions of years. But the finding will fundamentally change our understanding of how the world works, physicists said.

There is, quite obviously, a lot of skepticism about this result, even from the Europeans themselves because the implications of it being correct are fairly revolutionary:

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity – the one made famous by the equation E equals mc2. The speed of light – 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) – has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

“We’d be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe,” said famed Columbia University physicist Brian Greene. “That’s what we live for.”

The claim is being greeted with skepticism inside and outside the European lab.

“The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN.

CERN provided the particle accelerator to send neutrinos on a breakneck 454-mile (730-kilometer) trip underground from Geneva to Italy. France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research collaborated with Italy’s Ran Sass National Laboratory for the experiment, which has no connection to the atomic-smashing Large Hadron Collider, which is also located at CERN.

Gillies told The Associated Press that the readings have so astounded researchers that “they are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they’ve done and really scrutinize it in great detail.”

That will be necessary, because Einstein’s special relativity theory underlies “pretty much everything in modern physics,” said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment. “It has worked perfectly up until now.” And part of that theory is that nothing is faster than the speed of light.

CERN reported that a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant.

As Bryan Preston notes, this finding probably isn’t going to hold up to scrutiny simply because it’s so counterintuitive to everything that  we’ve learned in physics and because, as one of the scientists said, it contradicts Einstein and, so far, Einstein’s theories have held up to scrutiny. This is a great example, though, of how science works. Consensus is challenged, but when a result that contradicts that consensus is found it’s checked and re-checked. If it does turn out to be correct, then we’re going to have a new consensus, and someone will be challenging that someday. As intriguing as the idea of particles that travel faster than light might be, though, I think this is one time where the consensus is going to win in the end.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    If this somehow proves to be true (and for obvious reasons, I have nothing to say on the science) this will dwarf absolutely everything else on this page, or in any newspaper, anywhere.

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  2. Boyd says:

    …I think this is one time where the consensus is going to win in the end.

    The consensus doesn’t matter. The science is going to win in the end.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. mattb says:

    If this report is true then pretty much everything we know about physics could turn out to be wrong

    Drew and Jan should be sure to save this link for their “cut and paste proof” files because there’s no better proof that AGW can’t be real if everything we know about physics could possibly be wrong!

    Oh wait… Hold that thought…

    If these results are confirmed, they won’t change at all the way we live or the way the universe behaves. After all, these particles have presumably been speed demons for billions of years. But the finding will fundamentally change our understanding of how the world works, physicists said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. Neil Hudelson says:

    Didn’t ‘they’ (I can’t remember which group of scientists) record photons travelling at faster-than-light speed a few years back? I think they essentially recorded a photon entering a space as it was exiting.

    I get that photons are energy particles, while neutrinos have a small mass–is that why this is more significant?

    Edit: Found the photon article. If anyone could explain why the neutrino discovery is more significant, I would be very grateful :-). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100126175921.htm

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  5. Franklin says:

    The difference in speed is something like 0.0025% by my calculations. I’d be curious to know how many times they went over the calculations to check they’re all correct. Something as silly as using the arc length around the surface of the Earth rather than going straight through might make the difference. While my guess is that they did make a mistake, it would be really exciting if they didn’t. They are approaching it exactly correct, though: “Other scientists need to replicate our results.”

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  6. Hey Norm says:

    Particles moving faster than light is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the human race…check their e-mail acounts…they’re trying to raise money to fund their cush university lifestyles…Al Gore is behind this…wait…er…

    Seriously…if this is true…and I really, really, really want it to be true…it changes everything we think we know about the Cosmos…including the Earth being only 6000 years old. Everything gets turned on it’s head. Awesome. I await the science in eager anticipation.

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  7. mattb says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    Was that part of the “deportation” of an electron experiment (that seemingly broke the Pauli Principle?)

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  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ Neil and Franklin…

    From an AP report:

    “…Given the enormous implications of the find, the researchers spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there were no flaws in the experiment.
    A team at Fermilab had similar faster-than-light results in 2007, but a large margin of error undercut its scientific significance…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  9. mattb says:

    Crap… that “deportation” should have been “teleportation.”

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  10. samwide says:

    Neutrinos are keeno
    FTL in their speedos
    Little buggers
    are fast, fast, fast.
    Did I mention fast?
    I thought I’d
    caught one once
    Slowed down on its way
    through Perry’s brain

    I currently live in Vermont.

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  11. Tano says:

    Not to wander off topic or anything, but I did find this remarkable:

    “We’d be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe,” said famed Columbia University physicist Brian Greene. “That’s what we live for.”

    And my remark is that this seems to perfectly encapsulate why there really is a profound disconnect between the religious and the scientific worldviews.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Les Miner says:

    @Doug
    If I remember my algebra right if E=MC2 then E/M =C2. I have brought this up in my automotive classes in the past as an example that what we know today will not be what we know in the future. Now I will have to come up with something new. CERN may have just proved my theory. That with enough energy you could go faster than the speed of light. Albert Einstein was a truly brilliant.

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  13. Boyd says:

    @Tano: While I wouldn’t be as quick as you are to conclude what the “religious worldview” is, and that it’s in conflict with reality, I’ll have to admit that the religious folks who hold an anti-science world view are certainly louder than the rest of us.

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  14. Tano says:

    @Boyd:

    While I wouldn’t be as quick as you are to conclude what the “religious worldview” is, and that it’s in conflict with reality,

    Actually I wasn’t meaning to focus on the conflict with reality, though that is entailed in my premise. I meant simply that the religious worldview is largely based on faith – what seems to be a profound need to believe in certain “truths”. – the exact opposite of the attitude expressed in the quote.

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  15. Boyd says:

    @Tano: Gotcha.

    Speaking only for myself, though, I don’t consider “what I know right now” to be everything I’ll know in the future, and I’m always trying to learn more. And it’s not unheard of to discover that what I “know” is wrong, and I have to adjust my framework, so to speak. All of this applies to both my faith and my scientific understanding (much of which is “faith” as well, since I’m not a scientist of any sort).

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  16. Hey Norm says:

    I checked…the particle was designed by Adrian Newey and driven by Sebastian Vettel.

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  17. Michael says:

    @Doug:

    If this report is true then pretty much everything we know about physics could turn out to be wrong:

    No, pretty much everything we know about physics will still be correct because pretty much everything we know about physics has been proven to be correct many times over. What this will change is our understanding of relativity and high-energy physics and/or quantum physics (or our understanding of the limitations of our measuring equipment, as I suspect will be the case).

    @Neil Hudelson: They didn’t discover individual photos going faster than the speed of light, but the group wave did. Think of it like a wave going through a slow-moving stream, the wave itself will travel faster than any single molecule of water. Same thing here.

    @Les Miner: E=MC2 is the formula for converting the rest mass into energy, it isn’t the formula that makes FTL travel impossible. There is a separate function for the mass transformation that shows that as an object approaches the speed of light, it also approaches an infinite mass. Presumably the detected neutrinos didn’t have near-infinite mass when they were detected, so I suspect something else is happening here than simple acceleration beyond c.

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  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Hey Norm:
    @Michael:

    Thank you!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  19. mattb says:

    @Tano
    To be fair, its also incorrect to associate that claim with all scientists. It is very much true for hard researchers — those whose work is largely about pushing boundaries.

    However, as Kuhn and others points out, that type of research is actually in the minority when one looks at all the work being conducted by scientists (I’m leaving out science adjancent folks for the moment) right now. For the rest, whose careers are built on exploring and deepening our notion of existing science, paradigm shifts are not particularly welcome because they can (though ultimately their effects in the near term are overstated) completely destabilize very work those people have built their lives around.

    Science is not always as progressive as it appears.

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  20. Drew says:

    The science is settled…….ve vill not let you question it!!!! ………………………nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  21. JKB says:

    And look, no one is conspiring to keep the research out of peer reviewed journals. Or trying to keep the data and methods out of FOIA coverage. On the otherhand, these particles could have just skidded on some ice caused by global warming.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. @Neil Hudelson:

    Didn’t ‘they’ (I can’t remember which group of scientists) record photons travelling at faster-than-light speed a few years back? I think they essentially recorded a photon entering a space as it was exiting.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-475587/Scientists-break-speed-light.html

    Although in this case, I’m not sure whether the “faster than the speed of light” is the actual result or just the “dumbed down” newspaper explanation since it involves quantum tunneling (which means the photons aren’t strictly moving in the sense most people use the term).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Kylopod says:

    This is old news. FTL particles were already discovered twenty years ago by Douglas Adams:

    “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws. The Hingefreel people of Arkintoofle Minor did try to build spaceships that were powered by bad news but they didn’t work particularly well and were so extremely unwelcome whenever they arrived anywhere that there wasn’t really any point in being there.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  24. Les Miner says:

    Michael you are correct the equation is for turning mass into energy. But for the equation to be true mathematically speaking if E=MC2 then E/M=C2 and E/C2=M. So this equation could be more than just turning mass into energy. So in E/M=C2 if we use one unit of mass 34700983524/1= 34700983524 so the amount of energy is massive and in E/C2=M if we use one unit of energy 1/34700983524=2.8817627008e-11. So, in this equation it says you could move an incredibly small amount of mass at the speed of light squared. Maybe this is the true speed limit to the universe just a theory. Only time will prove my theory wrong but if my theory is wrong it would also prove that E=MC2 is wrong. Sorry for getting so mathematical but math seems to be a universal constant

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  25. Michael says:

    @Les Miner: The ‘c’ in that equation is a conversion constant, not a velocity. As I said, it refers only to the energy equivalent of the mass at rest. If you want to talk about velocity, then the full equation is: E = (mc^2 / sqrt(1-(v^2/c^2) ) )

    As you see, it only reduces to E=mc^2 when velocity(v) = 0. Now, using that equation, you see that the closer you get to v = c, the closer the bottom part of that fraction gets to zero. As it does so, the equation pushes E (the energy required to reach that velocity) towards infinity. Strictly speaking, then, it requires an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a massive object to the speed of light (and, thus, greater than infinite amount of energy to go faster than that).

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  26. Buzz Lightyear says:

    To infinity…and beyond!!!

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  27. MBunge says:

    @Michael: “No, pretty much everything we know about physics will still be correct because pretty much everything we know about physics has been proven to be correct many times over.”

    Do you know what Dark Matter and Dark Energy are? Excuses.

    To brutally simplify things, modern physics says the universe should look like X. When observed, however, the universe actually looks like X+5. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are these invisible entities that physicists came up with to explain the +5. They don’t know what they are, where they came from, where they go, what they do or why we can’t see them. All they know is that if Dark Matter and Dark Energy do not exist, our understanding of existence is seriously flawed in a way that no one knows or even suspects, so nobody really wants to think about that.

    Assuming Peak Oil doesn’t plunge us into a Mad Maxian future, the current conceit that we’ve basically got the universe figured out and just need to fill in the details will be seen as yet another silly expression of the human ego.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Matt Bramanti says:

    @Franklin: Yeah, I came up with same 0.0025 percent difference. I don’t know a whole lot about high-energy physics, but it seems like there are a whole lot of things that could throw off an experiment by that much.

    I agree, they went about it the right way. Their paper wasn’t a triumphal “ha! you suckers have all been wrong!” It was more like, “whoa, that can’t be right, can it?”

    A question for anyone who might know — if this is right, and the particles did go faster than light, are the implications huge if it is eventually determined that the neutrino’s speed is the new top speed? Does it matter a whole lot if the new limit is 1.000025*c instead of just c? (I’m not being a smartass, by the way, I’m really curious.)

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  29. Michael says:

    Do you know what Dark Matter and Dark Energy are? Excuses.

    They are ideas, but certainly not something I consider in the realm of “what we know”.

    All they know is that if Dark Matter and Dark Energy do not exist, our understanding of existence is seriously flawed in a way that no one knows or even suspects, so nobody really wants to think about that.

    Not true at all. It could very easily be that the discrepency (the +5) was simply the result of not taking into account all the variables that we do know of. Take the Pioneer anomaly as the perfect example, what looked like something that required a new new physics to explain now appears to be the result of not calculating the effects of the spacecraft’s own heat radiation. And there are plenty of physicists thinking about the possibility that dark matter and dark energy are not real, just recently I read about one who had a new explanation for the rotation of galaxies that didn’t require the existence of dark matter, but again proposed that the discrepancy was the result of not taking into account some more common variable.

    Does it matter a whole lot if the new limit is 1.000025*c instead of just c?

    Yes it matters. c isn’t special because it’s the speed of light, it’s the speed of light because photos are special. That is, because photons have no mass, any small force should, according to Newtonian physics (F=ma), produce an infinite acceleration. The fact that they stop accelerating at c means that c is the top-speed possible in the universe. If it’s not, then something is keeping photos from reaching that top speed, which is something that would indeed require a new kind of physics to explain.

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  30. MBunge says:

    @Michael: “Not true at all. It could very easily be that the discrepency (the +5) was simply the result of not taking into account all the variables that we do know of.”

    Not to get into a science discussion I really know next to nothing about, but to account for the discrepancy, Dark Matter must make up about 83% of all matter in the universe while Dark Energy must account for 73% of all mass-energy in existence. I used +5 for my example, but it should have been closer to +50000000000000000000000000000000000000000000etc. There really aren’t a whole lot of other known variables that could account for it.

    Mike

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  31. Michael says:

    Not to get into a science discussion I really know next to nothing about, but to account for the discrepancy, Dark Matter must make up about 83% of all matter in the universe while Dark Energy must account for 73% of all mass-energy in existence.

    Only because both are proposed to be weak enough to explain why we haven’t observed them on smaller scales and time frames. If they were anywhere near as strong as, say, electromagnetism, there wouldn’t have to be nearly as much of it.

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  32. MBunge says:

    @Michael: “Only because both are proposed to be weak enough to explain why we haven’t observed them on smaller scales and time frames.”

    That doesn’t change the point, which is that both Dark Matter and Dark Energy are concepts pulled out of science’s collective ass because the alternative is that our understanding of the physical laws of the universe is radically flawed, we have no idea what that flaw might be and not the slightest clue where to even start looking for it.

    Not that I’m arguing DM and DE don’t exist. I haven’t the slightest clue about that myself.

    Mike

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  33. mattb says:

    @JKB:
    Not that facts matter, but…

    And look, no one is conspiring to keep the research out of peer reviewed journals.

    Except there is no proof that any articles have ever been kept out of journals. In fact the IPCC has published counter articles in their journals.

    As far as the controversy you refer to, you conviently leave out the facts that:

    [The artcle in question] was published in a peer-reviewed journal called Climate Research, but under unusual circumstances. Half of the editorial board of Climate Research resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the peer review process. The paper, which argued that current warming was unexceptional, was disputed by scientists whose work was cited in the paper. Many subsequent publications set the record straight, which demonstrates how the peer review process over time tends to correct such lapses. Scientists later discovered that the paper was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.

    http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/global_warming_contrarians/debunking-misinformation-stolen-emails-climategate.html

    Now that doesn’t mean that all research papers submitted are published. Or that journals have a requirement to represent “both sides” of an argument. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the goal of peer review (see http://mind.ofdan.ca/?p=940 for a good quick description).

    So fact fail #1.

    onto

    Or trying to keep the data and methods out of FOIA coverage.

    The issue in question involves Virginia State Law, which is somewhat ambigous as to what is considered data — in particular do emails represent scientific data. This is imporant because emails can be exempt from certain FOIA requests. (see: http://www.virginia.edu/foia/climatechange/ )

    So they did exactly what should have been done — took the issue to court and got clarification in the form of a ruling. When the ruling said that they had to release the emails, the university complied.

    So again, nice shot at ignorance… but now you’ve gotten the full facts. Please try to disprove them.

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