Discovery of faster-than-light particles would leave Einstein scratching his head

Mike Wehner, Tecca
Technology News Blog

The rate at which light travels has been considered the universal speed limit for many decades, but a new discovery made by researchers at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland could throw that notion right out the window. The scientists using a massive particle detector called the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus (OPERA) believe they have caught subatomic particles called neutrinos moving faster than light — a feat which was once considered impossible.

The test which produced the unexpected finding was rather simple; For a total of 3 years, the OPERA hardware tracked the flight time of roughly 16,000 neutrinos over a 730-kilometer gap. The average time to complete the trip clocked in at 2.43 milliseconds, which is 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. If the preliminary results check out, it could poke a big hole in Einstein's ubiquitous theory of relativity, which uses the speed of light — 299,792,458 meters per second — as a constant.

But it may not be all doom and gloom for the long-held belief of an all-encompassing natural law of speed. In fact, even physicists who specialize in neutrinos believe that OPERA may be producing some false results. The experiments themselves rely on less-than-precise GPS location data to determine when the neutrinos are formed in high-speed proton collisions, and when they are detected by the OPERA hardware. Even tiny inaccuracies in this crucial data can throw off the results dramatically, so we'll just have to wait and see what the CERN researchers are able to glean from the surprising data before we officially call Einstein's bluff.


This article originally appeared on Tecca

More from Tecca: