Einstein's theory refuted by discovery of faster-than-light particle
The cornerstone theory of modern physics — special relativity — could be turned upside-down if the discovery is confirmed.
Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 04:54 AM
Photo: ZUMA Press
Scientists working at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy claim to have made a discovery that could forever change the laws of physics as we currently understand them: a particle that can move faster than the speed of light, according to Nature.
If confirmed, the discovery would not only overthrow Einstein's theory of special relativity, but it would also uproot one of the fundamental assumptions of science — that the laws of physics are the same for all observers.
The discovery was made during an experiment called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), which is set up to measure the arrival time of a beam of neutrinos coming from CERN, Europe's premier high-energy physics laboratory. Researchers were shocked when they began recording neutrinos arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows — something that is supposed to be a physical impossibility.
"If it's true, then it's truly extraordinary," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN.
So extraordinary, in fact, that the discovery has been met with skepticism. Ellis, for instance, is quick to point out a deficit of corroborating evidence. Experiments have been set up before to look for faster-than-light particles, but all have failed to produce convincing positive results, until now. Why the difference?
"It's difficult to reconcile with what OPERA is seeing," said Ellis.
Even so, OPERA spokesperson Antonio Ereditato, who is also a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, has said that researchers are confident enough to label the results with a significance of six-sigma — a level that basically indicates near certainty. Over the last two years, more than 16,000 events have been recorded measuring the speedy neutrinos.
If any type of particle were a candidate to break the light speed barrier, it would be the neutrino. These tricky subatomic particles are electrically neutral, have a miniscule nonzero mass, and can pass through matter practically unaffected. In fact, many billions pass harmlessly through your eye every second.
One reason that the speed of light is so important to modern physics is that it represents a physical constant — a cosmic speed limit — that ensures the laws of physics are the same for all observers. Following Einstein's theory of special relativity, if the speed of light can be broken, then all sorts of paradoxes arise. For example, it would become possible for effects to be observed before they are caused.
"If you give up the speed of light, then the construction of special relativity falls down," noted Antonino Zichichi, a theoretical physicist and emeritus professor at the University of Bologna, Italy.
The stakes of these experiments are huge. Needless to say, the results will need to be duplicated before they can be officially confirmed. So far, though, the researchers at OPERA have been unable to find any other explanation for their result.