Experts race to check faster-than-light results

2011-09-23 14:45

Geneva - A startling discovery by 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.

Already they are planning to put Einstein and the new finding to 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 with Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, who announced the discovery on 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 works. 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.

Only two labs elsewhere in the world can try to replicate the results of the world's biggest physics lab. One is Fermilab outside Chicago and the other is a Japanese lab put on hold by the tsunami and earthquake.

Cosmic speed limit

Fermilab officials met on Thursday about verifying the European study and said their particle beam is already up and running. The only trouble is that the measuring systems aren't nearly as precise as the Europeans' and won't be upgraded for a while, said Fermilab scientist Rob Plunkett.

"This thing is so important many of the normal scientific rivalries fall by the wayside," said Plunkett, a spokesperson for the Fermilab team's experiments. "Everybody is going to be looking at every piece of information."

Plunkett said he is keeping an open mind on who will be right, Albert Einstein or Cern, but he added: "It's dangerous to lay odds against Einstein. Einstein has been tested repeatedly over and over again."

Going faster than the speed of light is just not supposed to happen. The speed of light's 299 792.458 km/s has long been considered the cosmic speed limit. And breaking it is a big deal, not something you shrug off like a traffic ticket.

"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 scepticism 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 Giles, a spokesperson for Cern, which provided the particle accelerator to send neutrinos on their breakneck 730km trip underground from Geneva to Italy.

Famous equation

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 Large Harden Collider located at Cern.

Giles said that the readings have so astounded researchers that "they are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they've done and really scrutinise it in great detail".

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=mc2.

It is "a revolutionary discovery if confirmed", said Indiana University theoretical physicist Alan Kostelecky, who has worked on this concept for a quarter of a century.

Einstein's special relativity theory that says energy equals mass times the speed of light squared 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 730km away in Italy travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant.


Given the enormous implications of the find, they 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 that experiment had such a large margin of error that it undercut its scientific significance.

If anything is going to throw a cosmic twist into Einstein's theories, it's not surprising that it's the strange particles known as neutrinos. These are odd slivers of an atom that have confounded physicists for about 80 years.

The neutrino has almost no mass, it comes in three different "flavours", may have its own antiparticle and even has been seen shifting from one flavour to another while shooting out from the sun, said physicist Phillip Schewe, communications director at the Joint Quantum Institute in Maryland.

Fermilab team spokesperson Jenny Thomas, a physics professor at the University College of London, said there must be a "more mundane explanation" for the European findings. She said Fermilab's experience showed how hard it is to measure accurately the distance, time and angles required for such a claim.

Nevertheless, the Fermilab team, which shoots neutrinos from Chicago to Minnesota, will go back to work immediately to try to verify or knock down the new findings, Thomas said.

Drew Baden, chair of the physics department at the University of Maryland, said it is far more likely that there are measurement errors or some kind of fluke. Tracking neutrinos is very difficult, he said.

Cosmic shortcut

"This is ridiculous what they're putting out," Baden said, calling it the equivalent of claiming that a flying carpet is invented only to find out later that there was an error in the experiment somewhere. "Until this is verified by another group, it's flying carpets. It's cool, but..."

So if the neutrinos are pulling this fast one on Einstein, how can it happen?

Stephen Parke, who is head theoretician at the Fermilab said there could be a cosmic shortcut through another dimension - physics theory is full of unseen dimensions - that allows the neutrinos to beat the speed of light.

Indiana's Kostelecky theorises that there are situations when the background is different in the universe, not perfectly symmetrical as Einstein says. Those changes in background may change both the speed of light and the speed of neutrinos.

But that doesn't mean Einstein's theory is ready for the trash heap, he said.

"I don't think you're going to ever kill Einstein's theory. You can't. It works," Kostelecky said. Just there are times when an additional explanation is needed, he said.

If the European findings are correct, "this would change the idea of how the universe is put together", Columbia's Greene said. But he added: "I would bet just about everything I hold dear that this won't hold up to scrutiny."

  • DarwinEvolution - 2011-09-23 15:09

    Wow....looking forward to the outcome!! Well done people your work is truely amazing!!

  • TheSkepticDetective - 2011-09-23 15:10

    Now that is good reporting. Thank you.

      Coconut - 2011-09-23 15:58

      I agree. Normally I don't read this section of News24 because they sensationalize it so much even if it is science, and what you end up with is something not worth reading.

  • Modicum of Reason - 2011-09-23 15:16

    Absolutely amazing, if this discovery is correct watch this space. Things are going to get interesting.

  • grimbie1 - 2011-09-23 15:19

    and South Africa worries about racism and corruption etc when things like this are going on. Great to see that they are at least reporting on this. Pitty there really arent too many people following this as comparted to the rest of the news this is actually what is interesting and relevant. Had a great lecture in at the royal Institue of GReat Britain last night from two fantastic gentleman on 'invisibilty'. There are fantastic things going on with that too. Then last week Quantum mechanics, does it hurt. Cant wait for next month when a prof from CERN is doing a lecture. A few questons coming her way. Great article.

  • Crunchiessss - 2011-09-23 15:20

    There are very smart people in this world. I did not understand half of what was said. I still do not understand E=mc2 I know it means something but what? I'm outa here :(

      Mad Hatter - 2011-09-23 15:28

      Energy = mass times the square of speed. E=mc^2 Ground breaking because it says that mass and energy are really the same thing. At least thats how i see it.

      DarwinEvolution - 2011-09-23 15:59

      @Mad Hatter...well not forgot momentum

      Mzungu - 2011-09-23 20:37

      What momentum? E=mc^2 is what he said? A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, best you dont hurt yourself

      Henry - 2011-09-24 08:18

      Correction: Energy = mass times square of the speed of light . . .

  • mal.emmer - 2011-09-23 15:27

    Always the same type of claims when budgeting or sourcing research grants in tough financial times. All Albert needed was his brain. All CERN needs is another multi-billion Euro research grant for tunnelling and oversized paycheques. I for one will not be holding my breath.

      Brian - 2011-09-23 15:50

      And even Albert with his brain still had to wait until his theories were validated by experiment.

  • Matt :-) - 2011-09-23 15:29

    Very interesting... worth mentioning though is that the speed of light is not a constant. Older observations recorded the speed faster than it is today, and scientists have slowed and even stopped it in the lab. Plus, the last 50 years they use the atomic clock to measure the speed of light, so effectively they're measuring the speed of light by light...

      Dead Skunk - 2011-09-23 15:44

      I think it's called "Gravitational Time Dilation" light is slowed down by the effect of the garvitational pull of the planets that it passes and then speedes up once outside the influence.

      Coconut - 2011-09-23 16:05

      Is the speed of light effected or the measurement of time?

      Henry - 2011-09-24 08:20

      Matt, I suggest you do some reading on the inner workings of the atomic clock.

  • Cire - 2011-09-23 15:46

    Fascinating! If the results are correct its another push towards revising the fundamental paradigm of science!

  • Han Solo - 2011-09-23 15:49

    Looks like those neutrinos have finally discovered the realm of Hyperspace!

  • JanSlim - 2011-09-23 15:55

    This is old news Captain Spock tried to explain cosmic shortcuts through other dimensions/alternate realities to Kirk years ago! This is the principle that explains the Vulcan hyperdrive :-)

      Cire - 2011-09-23 18:13

      True. And don't forget the infinite improbability drive.

      CTatheist - 2011-09-23 18:55

      LOL @ Cire

  • Zion - 2011-09-23 15:55

    The only thing that can go faster than light is the tachyon but sadly none have ever been caught or measured. Problem with the tachyon is it cannot go slower than the speed of light.

      Spade - 2011-09-23 16:16

      I hear Chuck Norris caught one and measured it the other day. I think he also tagged it...

      itsinthemind - 2011-09-23 16:22

      SA taxis come to mind

      Epicurius - 2011-09-23 17:19

      I hear Chuck also counted to infinity last week.....twice.

      Cire - 2011-09-23 18:14

      Chuck was dropped on his head as a child - that was the big bang

      CTatheist - 2011-09-23 18:56

      Have you forgotten Chuck Norris?

  • Rudi van Schalkwyk - 2011-09-23 16:07

    ummm.......ummmmmmmm....Beam me up Snotty?

  • dirk.bester - 2011-09-23 16:40

    money on einstein but lets wait and see. think its the first comment section i have seen without people fighting. well done

  • Utopian - 2011-09-23 16:45

    Amazing. Call the hungry and disenfranchised masses and minorities immediately to share the good news of their salvation. What? None? Oh bother then why the hell...

  • draadsitter - 2011-09-23 16:54

    Yahoo GO SCIENCE!!

  • Donald - 2011-09-23 16:58

    over 30 years ago one on my lectures pointed out that a wave front could travel faster than light. This was the position where the wave hits the side of the wave guide. I wonder if this is something like that?

  • Brainbow - 2011-09-23 17:05

    The "discovered" speed is still relative to the devices measuring it. With the relative adjustments E=mc^2.

  • BugsyJamesy - 2011-09-23 17:40

    I have read about faster than light particles in 1970's physics books, this is almost like the gas and oil fields off the Namibian coast, every few years it seems to be discovered. This is old news.

  • HowardX - 2011-09-23 18:48

    Article is bylined AP which means that it's from the syndicated Associated Press feed. No actual journalism on the part of News24.

  • CTatheist - 2011-09-23 18:59

    Here is a sticky one, if two light particles propagate from the same source in opposite directions, what is the mean speed between those particles?

      BugsyJamesy - 2011-09-23 20:36

      It's relative, read up about EA theory, it's actually not that bizarre, once you understand the basics the rest is easy. You don't need to have much understanding about Mathematics either. It should be taught at schools but I believe most teachers don't understand it either. I'm not clever at all but I find the whole concept very simplistic.

      CTatheist - 2011-09-23 21:42

      Bugsy, whats the answer? I swatted physics by the way.

      BugsyJamesy - 2011-09-24 07:52

      Like I said it's relative, the speed between the 2 can't exceed the speed of light, keep in mind that nothing in the universe is stationary. The speed between 2 objects cannot be faster than the speed of light, the time thing also comes in now, remember speed is measured in distance per time fracture for example Km/sec. The faster you travel your time fracture actually becomes longer when you reach the speed of light time stops. One could reason that if you could travel faster than light you would go back in time, that is impossible because in this universe time always goes forward. Imagine a guy in a row boat rowing away from a lighthouse, every second the light house light rotates, We know light travels at 300 000 Km/sec, now when he increases his speed it would take a bit longer for the light beam to reach him, but the light beam would still hit him every second, the only difference is his second is slightly longer than the second on the light house. When he reaches the speed of light the light beam would not reach him anymore, so his second is now infinite compared to the second at the lighthouse, weird but actually simple.

      BugsyJamesy - 2011-09-24 07:56

      Each one's speed relative to the source times 2 I think, don't relay know, please tell.

      BugsyJamesy - 2011-09-24 10:00

      300 000 Km/sec

      Zion - 2011-09-24 11:35

      CTatheist, here is another but opposite direction: A spaceship is moving at say 85% of the speed of light. It launches a module or rocket in the same direction it is travelling and the speed is only 30% of the speed of light.Simple we simple add the two and hey presto the module or rocket is travelling at 15% above the speed of light. Wrong, if the correct equations are used then the speed of light will never be reached. As said elsewhere the equations are mathematically very simple.

      pietie - 2011-09-24 12:50

      @Zion - i was pondering this exact question when i read your comment! can you give more details on how this works or perhaps a link to a site that does?

      CTatheist - 2011-09-24 18:54

      The secret lies in the word propagate. Also check out quantum entanglement.

      Zion - 2011-09-25 11:28

      pietie I will give you the equation: V = final velocity of rocket V1 + V2 is the velocities of the spaceship and the rocket divided by 1 + V1V2/C squared C squared is the speed of light.

  • Steve Wonderboy - 2011-09-23 21:11

    As far as I am concerned, anything that can be measured can be exceeded. Scientists should have known that years ago already. What confuses me is, how can you see something that moves faster than the speed of light?

  • OK - 2011-09-23 23:20

    Fascinating. Anybody out there please help me understand why the speed of light is a limit for a particle with mass. If the universe expanded to a size several light years across within a minute after the Big Bang, then surely some particles must have traveled much faster than c?

      Zion - 2011-09-24 11:41

      Energyn is required to accellerate an object or particle with mass the higher the speed the more energy is needed and ultimately a speed will be attained where all the energy in the universe cannot propell it further and closer to the speed of light. the energy will be infinite. That is where the equation E = MCC (C squared)

      Ashley Liddiard - 2011-09-28 10:38

      @Zion: so -> squ(E/m) = c meaning the ration of E/m is a constant equal to the speed of light right? From the mathematical definition introduced by Einstein.. this is the energy which every mass must possess even when being at rest.. anatomically? So my final question - IF a particle can travel faster than the speed of light does this mean that gravity is ill defined or better put that there are certain particles found on earth that are not governed by this force? case in point the neutrino

  • Henry - 2011-09-24 08:00

    Isn't this what is keeping life interesting. This is truly awesome if the results are verified by another experiment. Who wants to die if this is the kind of new information that one can learn. Maybe heaven is a place on earth, with recognition to Belinda Carlisle.

  • Manie - 2011-09-24 13:34

    Nothing moves faster than light with the possible exception of bad news. But one cannot power a ship with bad news because it wont get off the ground for the same reason...

  • Christopher - 2011-09-24 14:25

    Just a note but considering the universe is expanding means that light traveling between two points in the same direction is already moving at the speed of light + rate of expansion. Speed is relatively measured between the point of origin and the destination in this case. So hence if the point of origin is moving at 100 m/s then the speed of light will be 299 792 558 m/s. This is fundamental logic as we are taking pictures of light catching up to us from the big bang... which means the expansion of the universe was faster than the speed of light. This does not disprove Einstein’s theory it just proves that the “the world is not flat.” We are looking for the first time at proof that space and time is not relative to a fixed point but to the directly linked to the expansion of the universe and the “entropy” that exists in it. Point of note… Entropy is just another word for us saying we can’t calculate the variables because of the complexity… Entropy is not randomness but just our lack of ability to calculate and measure.

  • Tachyon - 2011-09-24 20:30

    Indeed very good reporting. There are factors that are however not mentioned, such as the already know errors in the statistical uncertainties. I must say, reading the comments below; it is quite funny to see how some non-physicists try to explain these theories... :)

  • Tachyon - 2011-09-24 20:31

    Indeed very good reporting. There are factors that are however not mentioned, such as the already know errors in the statistical uncertainties. I must say, reading the comments below; it is quite funny to see how some non-physicists try to explain these theories... :)

  • Mac27 - 2011-09-26 05:40

    The Cern scientist should be on the R59 around 6h:00 and measure the speed of taxis. Neutrinos got nothing on them.

  • Badballie - 2011-09-26 11:32

    and man continues to believe he has even the faintest knowledge of what actually goes on in the world around us. Physics, science and indeed history should by now have taught us that nothing is written in stone and all of our "knowledge" is nothing more than speculation. Most of he things you were taught at school as fact have long since been proven wrong.

      Justin.A - 2011-09-26 13:05

      Really? Atomic theory is wrong? Algebra is wrong? Calculus is wrong? Principles of electricty are wrong? Biological systems are wrong? These are all speculation? Well how the hell are you typing this right now? Science is cumulative, and is open to addition: "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." "I don't think you're going to ever kill Einstein's theory. You can't. It works," Kostelecky said. Just there are times when an additional explanation is needed, he said.

  • Rowen - 2011-09-26 14:10

    What if a star or object whic emits light, say , travels at 4000 km an hour ...would the light that it emits be faster than the speed of light, like speed of light plus 4000 km/h. Makes me wonder

  • Ben - 2011-09-29 14:25

    Would love to see the outcome! Probably a mistake made, but if it's not...It would be very exciting! Damn I love physicists!

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