Faster than light neutrinos – Q&A

In Tech, World News on September 26, 2011 at 4:47 pm

By Alok Jha

Tentative new evidence suggests Einstein’s rule that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light may be wrong. What are the implications for our understanding of the world?

What has been discovered?

A fundamental subatomic particle, the neutrino, seems to be capable of travelling faster than the speed of light (that is, the speed of a photon through a vacuum).

Why do physicists believe nothing can go faster than light speed?

At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Einstein used earlier work by the physicist James Clerk Maxwell to show that the speed of light, c, is a fundamental constant and that it is also the maximum speed that anything can travel. In practice, the only things that do travel at this speed are photons (particles of light) moving through a vacuum.

Einstein encapsulated c in his special theory of relativity, which says that the laws of physics are the same regardless of who is observing or experiencing them. To accommodate the invariance of the speed of light, Einstein had to modify Newton’s laws of motion so that time and space became stretchy concepts – as an object moves faster, its size contracts and the time it experiences slows down. Special relativity also leads to Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc2 (where E is energy and m is mass), which shows that energy and matter are equivalent.

Where on the scale of amazing/surprising is this finding?

If the Gran Sasso results are proved correct, scientists would have reason to believe that the current formulation of special relativity is wrong. This is troubling, since the theory has been tested countless times in experiments and has not been disproved. It is a cornerstone of our understanding of the universe.

The speed limit of light is also the basis of cause and effect: effects always follow causes. If that does not always hold, the basic laws of physics might have to be rewritten.
What exactly did the physicists do?
Scientists at the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment in Gran Sasso, Italy, found that beams of neutrinos…

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