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Was Einstein Wrong About Speed of Light? Neutrinos Shake Up Physics Community

Scientists discovered that there is something faster than the speed of light. Scientists discovered that there is something faster than the speed of light.

Recently, scientists from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and the Gran Sasso research facility in Italy announced that their experiment on neutrinos, known as OPERA, had yielded a very unexpected result - the discovery that there may be particles on Earth capable of faster-than-light travel. If this is correct, the implications in the world of physics could be monumental, calling into question many things that we take for granted, from Einstein's Theory of Relativity and the accepted principle that nothing can travel faster than light, to even what is perhaps the most famous equation in existence: E=mc².

So, was Einstein wrong? And what, exactly, is a neutrino, anyway? Most of us are not physicists, so let's examine this complicated topic and break it down to its elementary particles.

Neutrinos are tiny objects that are one of the fundamental particles of the universe, have very little mass, and are arguably the least understood. Similar to electrons but without their own negative or positive charge, neutrinos are able to pass through great distances of most types of matter without being affected by it in any way. This characteristic is perhaps the neutrino's most valuable asset as a research tool, because it does not need to be in a vacuum to behave in a scientifically-friendly way; neutrinos behave exactly the same in almost all environments.

There are three types of neutrinos: electron, muon, and tau, and all neutrinos transform from one form to another in a phenomenon known as 'neutrino oscillation.' It was this phenomenon that inspired the OPERA experiment in the first place- researchers were eager to photograph the rare tau form. They set up an experiment where neutrinos were sent from the particle accelerator at CERN to the Gran Sasso laboratory 732 km away, right through the Earth's crust. Because neutrinos do not interact with matter, they can pass right through dirt and rock as though nothing is there. Using the most accurate and sophisticated equipment available, from atomic clocks to scientific grade GPS systems, researchers took careful measurements of all relevant data, including the speed at which these tiny particles traveled from CERN to Gran Sasso.

“The most amazing thing is that they found this anomaly when they weren't even looking for it.”

Over 16,000 observed results were compiled, and the findings were so shocking that scientists at the two labs have spent months, without success, trying to find an error in their work. According to their measurements, the neutrinos were arriving at their destination more than 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. 60 nanoseconds may seem like a very short time, and it is, but within the realm of physics it is a statistically very significant result.

Ever since Albert Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity became a known principle, it has been a scientifically accepted fact that nothing can travel at faster-than-light (FTL) speed. In fact, because it is the fastest thing in the universe, the speed of light is used in physics equations as the universal constant, expressed by the letter 'c.' Einstein uses this universal constant in his famous equation E=mc², to explain the relationship between energy and mass.

If it turns out that light is not the fastest particle in the universe, then this whole area of science may need a complete overhaul. As far as we know, particles cannot travel at or beyond the speed of light because as an object reaches FTL its mass always increases, causing it to slow down. Even though a neutrino is incredibly tiny, it does carry a small amount of mass, and should be susceptible to the same laws as all other particles. If OPERA's results are proven to be accurate, then we have found an object that doesn't fit within our understanding of the laws of nature.

So, what does this mean? Possibly nothing, maybe a lot. Even the scientists involved with the study are unsure about what their results may eventually produce. "When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artifact of measurement to account for it, it's normal procedure to invite broader scrutiny, and this is exactly what the OPERA collaboration is doing; it's good scientific practice," said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci. "If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to make sure there are no other, more mundane explanations."

This is why CERN and Gran Sasso have decided to release their results after months of their own research. At this point, they have not been able to determine any known variant that could have skewed their measurements, but of course they are mostly interested in scientific accuracy, so they are moving on to the next inevitable phase of any good research project - peer review.

Whatever happens, here is what we know: a large group of some of the most intelligent and educated physicists in the world have developed an experiment that, using the newest and most advanced technology available, has found an extraordinary anomaly within the world of physics. And the most amazing thing is that they found this anomaly when they weren't even looking for it.

If anything, this possible discovery shows that we should never stop learning and looking for new scientific advancements. That was one of Einstein's main objectives as a researcher - to always question, and to never stop searching for truth. Even if OPERA proves that he was wrong all this time, Albert Einstein would be proud.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 17 July 2012 17:14

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