Scientists report the impossible: Particles travelling faster than the speed of light
Yes, scientists from the CERN particle accelerator have been carefully firing neutrinos at a detector 730 km (454 mi) away and measuring their speed. And to their dismay, the particles have been arriving some 60 nanoseconds earlier than the speed of light allows, with a margin of error of about 10 nanoseconds. This has a number of physicists in a tizzy, as nothing in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The Theory of Relativity is an extremely robust thoery that has been proved right any number of times, as one scientist put it after hearing the news, this is like announcing that one has invented a flying carpet.
To their credit, the scientists making the announcement are also extremely skeptical of their results. In fact the only reason they published was so that the rest of the scientific community had the opportunity to peruse them and point out where the mistake was made. And of course to encourage scientists elsewhere to try and replicate them, nothing is really proved in science until it is independently verified by multiple objective sources. In this case we may have to wait awhile though, apparently the CERN accelerator is pretty much the only place set up now to make measurements of this type, so there’s going to be a lot of fine tooth combs going over CERN’s data.
So why is this important? Well, in some senses it’s not. The Theory of Relativity works, things like space travel and GPS systems wouldn’t work if there was some basic flaw in Relativity. So this probably isn’t going to change the world much even if it does turn out to be true for some reason. Still, this does illustrate several things, the first being how nicely the core of science works. Scientists find an anomalous result, if they can’t explain it, they publish it and throw it out for the discussion and research of other scientists. Eventually the result will be explained away as some sort of measurement error, or there will be a new chapter to our understanding of how the universe works.
It’s also an interesting little tidbit if one has been following basic particle physics for any length of time. Pretty much every time science builds a bigger atom smasher (to use the vernacular,) they almost invariably get some results that no one expected. Which is why they keep on building bigger atom smashers, to further refine our understanding of how our universe works on the tiniest of scales. So this result isn’t so much an indication that science may be wrong, but an example of science at its best. I think it’s pretty safe to say that this won’t be the last time that cutting edge physics research yields unexpected results. Stay tuned.
More on point, this illustrates a concept that often seem hard for some people to grasp. “The map is not the territory.” No matter how perfect our understanding and model of the Universe becomes, it’s just a model, it’s not reality itself. This is ultimately what the scientific revolution was all about, the idea that no matter how wise a scholar was, their theories had to jibe with reality. And that a scientific idea had to be testable for it to be a valid scientific concept. There was a time when learned men seriously debated whether Adam had a naval or whether angels defecated. Those days are gone, at least in mainstream science, but the underlying attitude that an understanding of reality is reality is still all too common. This is why (among other reasons) religion still has such a grip on so many minds, and why scientists still occasionally do things that in retrospect were pretty silly.
Lastly, and this is purely speculative, it may actually turn out that this is both a real result and one that will lead to an important new aspect of our understanding of reality. It has been suggested (seriously) that this may be caused by some sort of micro-wormhole property to reality, or that maybe the “matrix” of reality has some wiggle room to it and things can travel faster than light under some circumstances. So yes, maybe someday this discovery will be hailed as the first step towards practical interstellar travel, and some day future human space ships may be powered by a “CERN principle” drive.
I doubt it, but hey, fun to think about.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and it’s well, a cool image to illustrate this post with. It’s the Project Daedalus probe, designed to travel to Barnard’s Star, six light years away, in about 50 years. What can I say, I still like the idea that humans may one day build interstellar probes, so I mention Daedalus and the similar Project Longshot probe any chance I get. Humans could be building probes like this now, if we weren’t so busy spending all of our spare money on military hardware. Sigh.)