Who could travel much faster than light
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned home the previous night
This famous limerick came to mind when I read about reports last week that a CERN team (European Organization for Nuclear Research) had clocked neutrinos traveling faster than light. All the news services picked it up, and presented it with banners that this may refute Einstein’s theories and/or prove the possibility of time travel.
Of course, the emphasis was on the sensationalism, not the science. I’m now seeing entries in paranormal and religious forums rife with speculations about how this new “evidence” supports a number of strange theories.
But I wouldn’t put my money down yet. The truth is that the vast majority of the scientific community believes these findings are anomalous and won’t hold up to careful scrutiny. Some feel that the announcement was premature and irresponsible. And this time, it’s not a case of the establishment rejecting data out of hand that might threaten the current system.
Here’s why. Newtonian physics came increasingly under question as experiments into the nature of energy produced an ever-growing body of inconsistent data. But the opposite has held true for Einstein’s relativity in that ensuing experiments have consistently verified his theories, sometimes in unexpected ways (including the speed of light as the uppermost limit of space-time). Just earlier this year, a space probe confirmed yet another of Einstein’s predictions about the gravitational field of a rotating body. There was a report about ten years ago from another facility about faster-than-light observations that were later proved mistaken. Relativity works, and works really well.
Neutrinos are very mysterious and elusive particles that are extremely difficult to measure, let alone clock. They have no charge, and so do not interact with electromagnetism, which is the predominant force in the universe. This allows them to pass through solid matter virtually unhindered. They are, however, affected by the weak nuclear force, but have to pass extremely close to a proton to fall under its influence, and it’s primarily by this rare interaction that we are even able to detect them.
Supernova 1987A released both photons and neutrinos, but both particles were detected on earth at about the same time. Were we to apply the CERN discrepancy to this event, the neutrinos would have preceded the photons by about three years. Relativistic equations that predict sublight observations to great precision are anchored in no small part on the speed of light being the top cosmological velocity. A higher speed would throw these off, meaning that we’ve been using faulty math all these years that somehow produced the correct answers!
Faster than light? As one writer put it, not so fast. More than likely it will be one of those reports that just fade into obscurity. And of course, it’s refutation will unlikely be carried in the major news outlets because it’s not exciting, disruptive or otherwise sensational. Just as was the case with the previously mentioned discredited superluminal observation of a decade ago, or when the 700-year-old carbon dating on the Shroud of Turin turned out to be taken from a medieval patch hand-woven into the original fabric, you’ll have to dig to find the story.