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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Can the Speed of Light Law Be Broken?

By September 23, 2011

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News has been flying around about new findings out of CERN that they may have detected some neutrinos which were travelling faster than the speed of light. This is one single experiment and so, as the Bad Astronomy blog deftly points out, there's ample reason to be skeptical. However, team spokesman Antonio Ereditato said:

We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing. We now want colleagues to check them independently.

I'll leave it to the real scientists to figure out the specifics on the experiment itself, and take this as an opportunity to explain the implications of this finding, which could be nothing short of revolutionary to the world of physics.

The problem with this result is that nothing is supposed to be able to travel faster than the speed of light. This is one of the basic principles that comes out of Einstein's theory of relativity. So how could this happen?

To figure that out, let's examine for a moment exactly why the speed of light is considered a universal speed limit.

Why Is the Speed of Light a Barrier?

Einstein used two principles upon which he built his 1905 theory of special relativity (and later general relativity):

Principle of Relativity - The laws of physics are the same for all inertial reference frames (regions that are either stationary or moving at a constant speed).

Principle of Constancy of the Speed of Light - Light always propagates through a vacuum at a definite velocity, c, which is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body.

If you're paying close attention, you'll notice that neither of these principles preclude the idea that something other than light is in fact able to move at the speed of light.

However, as part of this work, Einstein developed a series of mathematical relationships that needed to be used when two objects are moving relative to each other. This was built on mathematical work that had already been initiated by Henri Poincare, Hendrik Anton Lorentz, and others ... mathematical transformations which eventually earned the name Lorentz transformations. One of those relationships (we won't get into the details of how he arrived at it) is the following equation, which represents the total kinetic energy for a moving body:

The relativity equation for change of mass based on velocity

There are some logistical complexities to this equation, but for our purposes the key element is that denominator. As v (the velocity of the object) is 0, or very near 0, then you'd get a result that's basically in line with the classical kinetic energy theory. Incidentally, in the scales we're talking about, even a fighter jet is "very near 0." Pretty much anything we ever come in contact with - except light and other forms of electromagnetic energy - moves much slower than the speed of light.

But what about if v is very large? Specifically, if the value of v becomes very close to the value of c (the speed of light), the v-squared over c-squared term is very close to 1, so 1 minus it is very close to 0. And when a denominator gets very close to 0, then the whole number gets very large. In mathematical terms, it "approaches infinity."

Einstein's equations also say that the object would be getting more and more massive ... approaching infinite mass, as well.

Any way you look at it, accelerating something to vc requires infinite energy!

That is why the speed of light is a speed limit ... because you just can't get enough energy to do it.

Breaking the Rules

Photons, however, are able to get around this, because they always move at the speed of light. They are created that way. As particles of light, this is just kind of what they do by definition. Their rest mass is zero, so the above equation doesn't apply to them. Their energy is calculated in a different way.

Neutrinos were long thought to also be massless particles, but experiments have indicated that they do have a very small amount of mass, so they should be governed by the rules of the above equation. It shouldn't be possible to accelerate them to (or beyond) the speed of light.

However, consider the reasoning behind making the speed of light a universal speed limit. It was because no object could get enough energy to accelerate to the speed of light. Which leaves me with one big question:

Is there any way for an object to move faster than the speed of light without being accelerated?

If the neutrinos in this experiment came into existence going faster than the speed of light already, this wouldn't technically violate the above equation. There's certainly no indication of a force acting on the neutrinos to give them this sort of boost, so really the expectation would be that they were moving this fast as soon as they were created, which is consistent with this idea.

While this wouldn't require an infinite amount of energy, the energy involved would still be very unusual. The above equation would then contain a negative number within the square root, which means that the total kinetic energy would be an imaginary number. As a rule, when imaginary numbers show up in the results of physics problems, they lead to all sorts of problems with the theory (or represent some sort of error in the experiment).

If confirmed, the experiment would force physicists to take a good long look at the theory of relativity and figure out how to revise it to account for this new evidence.

One Other Possibility

One possibility is that these particles are not actually neutrinos, but perhaps some other type of exotic, heretofore-unknown form of  matter which has properties similar to neutrinos ... similar enough to be detected by the OPERA detector, but strange enough that we've never encountered them before in our other experiments. I don't know enough about the details of the experiment to even guess how possible this is, but it might explain why we've never observed this effect before.

Perhaps the exotic form of matter is governed by rules other than relativity, in some unknown way. It's just an idea.

It'll definitely be interesting to see what the real scientists come up with as they delve deeper into this sort of mystery. I'll keep my eyes peeled and my ear to the ground, and let you know as soon as I have more information.

Because if this pans out, this could be the biggest science story of the decade ... and we're only in 2011!

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Comments

September 23, 2011 at 7:32 am
(1) richard moody jr says:

In autodynamics Ricardo Carezani postulated the existence of particles, pico gravitions, not neutrinos, that could travel 27 times the speed of light.

September 23, 2011 at 7:52 am
(2) Pattrick Lewis says:

That’s why we still need a theory of everything I guess. It has long been stated that nothing could accelerate to the speed of light, but is there anything that would stop a particle from moving faster than the speed of light without acceleration?

September 23, 2011 at 9:36 pm
(3) ramon h leigh says:

“Travelling faster than light at its creation” seems pretty bizarre and definitely ad hoc and hokey.

September 26, 2011 at 10:44 pm
(4) physics says:

It is most assuredly ad hoc, since I’m trying to explain something that was supposed to be impossible.

September 24, 2011 at 1:03 pm
(5) John O'Rourke says:

God is eternal beyone time and space. God is omnipresent.

If you just read the Bible you will see that people have already been teleported in the spirit. God who created Heaven and Earth created protons, neutrons, electrons etc. God is faster than the speed of light.

You might laugh at this, but please think about it for a minute. money doesn’t make the world go round…neither does gravitational force etc.

God makes the world go round.

Love in Christ Jesus,

John.

September 26, 2011 at 9:35 am
(6) KHALID MASOOD says:

EUREKA !!! Time is God, God Time.

Khalid Masood
Creator/Author: “TIME THEORY OF EVERYTHING”

September 26, 2011 at 9:46 am
(7) ProfChuck says:

It has been argued that the propagation velocity of gravitational waves is also c or the speed of light. It is not clear why this should be true and the velocity of g waves has never been measured because they have never been detected. The issue is that if a communication system could be constructed that employed a faster than light mechanism we would be able to transmit information faster than light and that would violate causality. So what would we do if we discovered that g waves travel at some velocity greater than c?
Because neutrino production can be controlled the process can be used as a communication device.
Obviously, if this observation is confirmed we are looking at new physics.

September 26, 2011 at 9:47 am
(8) Barry Ohn says:

Can you say “tachyon?”

September 26, 2011 at 9:53 am
(9) Youssef Tannous says:

Was light traveling in vacuum or in the air? If it was in the air then its speed may be broken without violating any (current) laws. Could it be that simple?

September 26, 2011 at 9:56 am
(10) Blunderov says:

@John O’Rourke: “God makes the world go round.”

Do you have any proof?

September 26, 2011 at 10:27 am
(11) A Court says:

To John O’Rourke if you want to start quoting the Bible when it comes to Science, I suggest you Christians start working with the Scientists like the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhist have since 1983
see; http://www.mindlife.org/

September 26, 2011 at 10:56 am
(12) jgjenson says:

Of course, “God makes the world go round”. The acts of nature are the acts of God. All of them! Two thousand innocent Japanese school children were killed in their very recent tsunami. Two hundred thousand plus Haitians were killed in an earthquake. Two hundred thousand plus were killed in the 2004 Indian ocean earthquake and tsunami. Etc. And He accomplished these many things without once traveling faster than the speed of light! Einstein decreed it! Both human science and religion are full of non-science nonsense!

September 26, 2011 at 11:04 am
(13) sid says:

mind is speedier than anything in the universe or beyond. everything exist in your mind. anything faster than mind does not and will not exist in our mind.

September 26, 2011 at 11:51 am
(14) cebrail hasimi oktar says:

ALL CONSERVATED FIELDS DIFFUSE FASTER THAN SPEED OF LIGHT
We know that all conservated fields are
1- Gravitational field
Fg= G.m1m2/r^2
2- Electrical field
Fe = k.q1q2/r^2
3- Magnetic field
Fm= s.g1g2/r^2
These equations show that all conservated fields diffuse faster than speed of light.Because they are independent from the velocity and speed.
As to de Broglie hypothesis ;Wave form can travel faster than speed of light.But particle form can not travel faster than speed of light.
Best Regards.
cebrail hasimi oktar

September 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm
(15) Mike Roberts says:

Thank you for explaining in simple terms the principle of “answers going to infinity”.

September 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm
(16) Science Observer says:

As scientists we should keep an open mind and not be dogmatic on the science’s “laws”. If we look into the history of science, we can see all the revisions, changes and improvements over pronoucements by the past scientists. Even Lord Kelvin was not spared the verdict of being proven wrong. S Hawking likewise had to eat some humble pies. Thus we should look at this new experimental discovery with much anticipation rather than fear. Physics should be a science with both an experimental as well as a theoretical component.

September 27, 2011 at 1:36 am
(17) kenkoskinen says:

Well it is too early to say but it is fun to think about. I have a difficult time thinking a particle with even a tiny mass could accelerate to superluminal velocities due to the infinity problems cited. Also light does not accelerate and it has a zero rest mass. I suggest it does not even decelerate when it enters different medium like glass. Nor do I think it accelerates when it exists to travel in the air or in empty space. Perhaps photons somehow instantly interact with the parts of space/time in vacuum and with the parts within different mediums in some way and this is what determines its different velocities. If so, the same principle could apply to some unknown tachyon that naturally travels faster than light but I think it would also have to be massless. If so … I also think it would not be able decelerate or accelerate either. Also, if true … we are not looking at neutrinos but some unknown process (perhaps a transition in route of some sort). If this is the case then special relativity is safe but new physics will still be needed.

Light could not have made the 730 kilometer trip that the neutrinos did since these moved through the earth to the Opera detector in Italy. Therefore the measured neutrino velocity (which is an average of over 16,000 neutrino events) was merely compared to the known velocity of light in vacuum.

It would be even more fun it this is a confirmed neutrino result rather than some new particle or just another systematic error. If so we have to look at adjusting special relativity with some cool new theoretical physics. In any case I would not hold my breath as this thing is going to take many months to iron out; perhaps even a few years.

September 27, 2011 at 1:57 am
(18) econcepts says:

6 billionths of a second? maybe they measured the distance wrong 753.000001 kilometers instead of 753 humm? How do you measure the distance underground from italy to where ever CERN is? Earth is not exacly a perfect sphere is it?. I am soo confused.

September 27, 2011 at 2:00 am
(19) Ahsan says:

it is quit different in saying that “Is any thing there which can move faster than the speed of light”. I want to make attention twords the Einstien’s theory in which He explains through mathematical means that

E = mc2

in my views this statement means that a matter particle can never attain the speed of light as if it happen, it’ll no more remain a matter particle and will be changed into energy bundle called Photon which has no mass at rest. so in my views no matter can have speed greater than speed of light.

September 27, 2011 at 3:13 am
(20) james webb says:

how would we recognize a manifestation of a dark matter or dark energy phenomenom?

September 27, 2011 at 3:21 am
(21) james webb says:

perhaps waves are an example of this happening? just saying, we measure and try to explain what we can,and the other 90% percent of what is out there doesn’t matter? sigh…….

September 27, 2011 at 8:53 am
(22) Hal says:

FASCINATING! Especially since I first asked during discussion in 1954 (for me then, high school) of Einstein’s Theory “what if their are kinds of matter that don’t have mass?” Not that long ago, on my erstwhile website “The Mongoose Trick,” I asked the same question. Of course, I don’t have a PhD – I just think a lot.

There’s another question I’ve been experimentally asking on forums like this one for years: “Does the meaning of ‘god’ change when I call him “A,” or “B”, or “infinity?” Do his “properties?” Can “A,” for instance, make a neutrino he can’t catch?” Why must he, she, or “A” become the explanation for everything the faithful (what does that mean, by the way?) can’t explain?

September 30, 2011 at 1:59 am
(23) Boks says:

E=mc2 has a number of previously known-units (measurements) used to gauge the “mass” and “energy”.

Could there be unknown units that have never come to equations?

October 1, 2011 at 2:49 am
(24) paul Mcgreevy says:

Exceeding the speed of light is plainly possible. If the CERN laboratory can propel mass at 99% of the speed of light then it can also propel mass in the opposite direction at 99% of the speed of light resulting in a collision at 198% speed of light.

Taking this argument further – It would be theoretically possible to build an engine that could propel the earth away from the sun at 75% the speed of light and attach a similar engine to the sun which would propel it in the opposite direction at 75% the speed of light. This would mean the 2 celestial bodies would be travalling away from each other at 150% speed of light and observers on the earth would never again see the light of the sun because it would never catch up with the earth.

Taking the argument furher – The people on the earth could then build a space ship and launch at 75% the speed of light in the same direction of travel as the earth which would consequently be travelling away from the sun at 225% the speed of light. The space ship could then fire a missile at 75% the speed of light which would then be travelling away from the sun at 300% the speed of light.

October 3, 2011 at 11:38 pm
(25) Larry Sverdrup says:

Light travels slower in matter as represented by the refractive index. What if dark matter also had an effect on light? When the speed of light is measured in vacuum, it is really measured in vacuum with a lot of dark matter in the background. If the dark matter has an effect and slows down light, then the speed of light has never actually been measured in vacuum devoid of dark matter. If neutrinos are not similarly slowed by dark matter, then they may travel closer to the true speed of light in a vacuum devoid of dark matter. In this case, it is not that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, but rather that light in a dark matter background travels slower than light in a more empty vacuum.

October 4, 2011 at 11:53 am
(26) FD Frick says:

Sir how do they compare the speed of light and anything else? Can thet set up a parallel ejector and the end product and see which arrives first?

October 6, 2011 at 1:53 am
(27) DaVeR says:

I seem to remember a time when people used to say:

“the speed of sound barrier will never be broken”

..and we all know how that went….

October 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm
(28) Angelo Molinaro says:

Angelo Molinaro
I had an article published in the scientific journal titled Galilean Electrodynamics Volume 15 Number1 January/Feburary 2004 issue. The article was titled The Invariance of Mass, which proves mathematically that Mass is an invariant. This finding proves that we can travel faster than the speed of light. I also wrote a book titled The Two State Universe which describes this finding. The book also describes a new theory of the Universe and Gravity, and answere many of the unanswered questions of Science.
I have an undergraduate degree from MIT, I also have a Doctor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Theoretical Physics.

October 8, 2011 at 11:52 am
(29) Brian OBrien says:

According to wikipedia when supernova 1987A occurred neutrinos were detected 3 hours before the light from the supernova reached earth.

No granted the neutrinos may have been emitted prior to the explosion, and that probably what the physicists postulated when they observed the neutrinos prior to the light.

However in light of the CERN experiment is it possible that the 3 hours difference is due to the neutrinos traveling faster than the light.

At CERN the neutrinos arrive nano secods early, but the distance traveled was far less the the distance between earth and SN 1987A.

So given the new speed constant of the neutrinos, and the speed of light and the distance between earth and 1987A, would we come up with neutrinos arriving 3 hours earlier and thus confirm the results of the CERN experiment?

October 17, 2011 at 4:56 am
(30) mjosephs says:

Einstein was inconsistent in his original Special Relativity documents. He indicated both constant and variable light speed….
speed of light
e=mc2

October 24, 2011 at 3:47 pm
(31) Angelo Molinaro says:

Angelo Molinaro
I had an article published in the scientific journal titled Galilean Electrodynamics Volume 15 Number1 January/Feburary 2004 issue. The article was titled The Invariance of Mass, which proves mathematically that Mass is an invariant. This finding proves that we can travel faster than the speed of light. I also wrote a book titled The Two State Universe which describes this finding. The book also describes a new theory of the Universe and Gravity, and answere many of the unanswered questions of Science.
I have an undergraduate degree from MIT, I also have a Doctor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Theoretical Physics.

January 2, 2012 at 4:33 pm
(32) ceephily says:

I think the problems we are having with this faster than light neutrino hypothesis is simply the dimension in which we think light moves. If light moves in a horozontal plane/direction, should we measure it in that same direction or vertical plane/direction. If you measure the speed of light which moves in a vertical plane in its same direction, you will have constant speed of light but if you measure it in a horozontal plane of that same light, it will appear infinity.

April 12, 2012 at 9:57 am
(33) Dr. Toivo Willmann says:

Gentlemen:

There is still hope to break the “light barreer”:

* According to Special Reltivity Theory, everything, the resting mass of which is not equal to “0″, becomes heavier and heavier, its mass increasing up to infinity, the more closer to light velocity it were accelerated.
* This is nonsense! Because in the nature there does not exist any function that really goes to infinity. All “goes-to-infinity functions” of anything break down (earlier or later) at very hight values, but nevertheless nothing “infinite”!
* I expect that the Real Special Relativity Theory also behaves so.
Matter, accelerated more and more, once will reach light velocity, having very high but not “infinite” mass.
* Accelarating such matter, at light velocity, even more it will superate the light velocity and simply disappear, like in Science Fiction, because nothing at higher velocity than light can stay in our universe, because of Relativty Theory. Such matter will break the barreer of our universe and escape from it. Where to go ? I don’t know.
* Let’s have a try in a particle accelerator, using electrons, because their resting mass is about 1,800 times lower than that of a proton. We’ll accelerate and accelerate and suddenly there iso no electron any more. Where did it got to ? Don’t know, but we succeeded.
*How much energy we’ll need ? I expect, when electron, because of its increasing mass, becomes its own Black Hole, able to break the barreer of our universe, will be sufficient. Note: not even mass increases and time slows down, near to light velocity, but the space dimensions of any object become smaller and smaller, making the object more and more compact. This will help us to transform the electron into a black hole.

If my theory were somehow infantile, this is, because I am a simple Ph.D in Chemistry, not in Theoretical and Quantum Physics.

Yours truly:

Toivo Willmann

April 12, 2012 at 9:59 am
(34) Dr. Toivo Willmann says:

Gentlemen:

There is still hope to break the “light barreer”:
* According to Special Reltivity Theory, everything, the resting mass of which is not equal to “0″, becomes heavier and heavier, its mass increasing up to infinity, the more closer to light velocity it were accelerated.
* This is nonsense! Because in the nature there does not exist any function that really goes to infinity. All “goes-to-infinity functions” of anything break down (earlier or later) at very hight values, but nevertheless nothing “infinite”!
* I expect that the Real Special Relativity Theory also behaves so.
Matter, accelerated more and more, once will reach light velocity, having very high but not “infinite” mass.
* Accelarating such matter, at light velocity, even more it will superate the light velocity and simply disappear, like in Science Fiction, because nothing at higher velocity than light can stay in our universe, because of Relativty Theory. Such matter will break the barreer of our universe and escape from it. Where to go ? I don’t know.
* Let’s have a try in a particle accelerator, using electrons, because their resting mass is about 1,800 times lower than that of a proton. We’ll accelerate and accelerate and suddenly there iso no electron any more. Where did it got to ? Don’t know, but we succeeded.
*How much energy we’ll need ? I expect, when electron, because of its increasing mass, becomes its own Black Hole, able to break the barreer of our universe, will be sufficient. Note: not even mass increases and time slows down, near to light velocity, but the space dimensions of any object become smaller and smaller, making the object more and more compact. This will help us to transform the electron into a black hole.

If my theory were somehow infantile, this is, because I am a simple Ph.D in Chemistry, not in Theoretical and Quantum Physics.

Yours truly:

Toivo Willmann

April 28, 2012 at 12:39 am
(35) Zen says:

if u change anything, it chance instamatically every where

even @ the edge of space (13.7b years away)

SO WITHOUT LOOKIN

we should b able 2 c it all

August 3, 2013 at 4:27 am
(36) ion adrian says:

Totally agree with what is written (19) Ahsan and flows and the philosophical concept of identity between matter and energy (Paracelsus said between matter and light)
For if E = mc ^ 2 is true, then it appears that c is a universal constant, regardless of the experiment the upper limit of the speed of material objects that can not exist only at sublight speeds

October 20, 2013 at 2:59 pm
(37) Khalid Masood says:

Time over Matter:
Time rules the universe, life, and everything. Time is real and fundamental; it is not a manufactured quantity.
Beginning of time as the very first moments of cosmic creation is nonsense.
Time can exist on it’s own. Time is not an illusion; physical existence is an illusion. Our physical universe may not be physical to a parallel universe in the Multiverse. Mass is a relative quantity. Matter of another universe may not be like our universe.
Time “t” is not really a fourth dimension of space. Space is not 3D+T. Space, motion, and light are forms of time. All motion is time. Speed of light is actually speed of time. All spatial dimensions are dimensions of time. Our physical universe consists of only three time dimensions in form of spatial dimensions. Space is 3TD.

February 21, 2014 at 12:00 pm
(38) Paul Lander says:

Since matter-energy in our universe cannot go faster then the speed of light, then one has to ask the question: What force prevents matter energy from surpassing the light speed barrier? It makes sense that a force exists that acts against matter energy in our universe to contain it and control it. If one can control this universal controlling/containment force then one will be free to go anywhere in this universe or beyond.

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