Neutrinos: faster than the speed of light?

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A fundamental rule in physics states that no atomic particles can travel faster than the speed of light. Nevertheless, recent findings indicate that some types of elementary particles can travel faster, sending scientists into an unforeseen debate over what was, before now, a relatively unquestioned physical edict.

A group of European scientists, mostly based in Switzerland and Italy, have studied particle acceleration, or speeding up particles to very high energy, for years, but were not expecting to make a discovery that would put Einstein on trial before the world. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) discovered that neutrinos (subatomic particles), whose speed potential was previously unknown, have been found to be able to travel at a speed that is .002 percent faster than the speed of light. While this percentage sounds insignificant, it’s important to note that neutrinos are possibly one of the universe’s smallest atomic-level particles and they function on an energy level that is much higher than average matter, thereby shortening time scales.

“They seem to be going about .002 percent faster than light,” Professor of Physics Don Colladay said. “This is very significant since conventional Special Relativity theory has a cosmic speed limit as light speed. It is a fundamental assumption that Einstein made about the universe which would have to be modified in some way.”

Because surpassing the speed limit theoretically allows for time manipulation, some news sources have brought up the idea of time travel in relation to neutrinos. However, Colladay dismissed this notion. According to him, it is physically impossible for anything heavier than light to travel faster than it. Neutrinos, because they are so small and their relative mass is so light, can use their weak interaction with most matter to surpass physical limits.

“Their interaction with ordinary matter is so weak that they can penetrate a solid block of lead from the Earth to the sun with high probability,” he explained.

Colladay, who has been following the research and experiments for the past two decades, understands the dramatic scientific implications that such a discovery poses – if the results are verified.

“It is an enormously significant change in the fundamental philosophy of Special Relativity that has worked well for the past century,” Colladay said. “Any such significant changes must be carefully checked before agreement can be reached.”

In fact, this discovery has divided scientific consensus on light speed and Special Relativity. While some scientists are already looking ahead at how Einstein’s theory could be revised, some are adamant about what they perceive as its impossibility. Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, is one such skeptic.

“Let me put my money where my mouth is: if the CERN experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV,” he said in the Sept. 26, 2011 issue of the Daily Mail.

Colladay has been expecting a discussion like this. His previous thesis advisor, Alan Kostelecky of Indiana University collaborated with him on two key papers that were published in Physical Review in 1997 and 1998. These papers modify the official stance on Special Relativity to include the possibility for particle acceleration that surpasses the speed limit.

“I hope that the theory I have been investigating in collaboration with my previous thesis advisor may turn out to be correct,” Colladay said. “We have published a standard model extension that contains couplings to background fields that can allow an effect like this to occur. If future experiments bear out, our predictions that would be very exciting.”

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