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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Speed of Light Update

By November 22, 2011

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Albert EinsteinIt's been a couple of months since the news came out that the OPERA experiment at CERN got results which indicated that some neutrinos were moving faster than the speed of light.

Why the Speed of Light Limit?

This result was certainly surprising, because Einstein's theory of relativity - a theory which has been confirmed over and over again - places a speed limit on the universe, and that limit is the speed of light. As I've explained before, the equations of relativity indicate that it's impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. And if you take a speed that's greater than the speed of light and plug it into the equations, the results give you nonsensical answers, like imaginary energy! (An imaginary number is when you take a square root of a negative number.)

In other words, if the speed of light can be broken, then one of the fundamental principles that we thought we understood about the universe is clearly incomplete or invalid.

It's a very exciting time for physicists!

Skepticism Abounds

However, physicists are appropriately skeptical about such a claim. To overturn a century of consistent experimental evidence in support of the theory, it'll take more than just one anomalous result. That's how things work in science, after all. A theory is in place, confirmed by evidence, but there can be a gradual accumulation of data that refutes the theory. Scientists then have to revise or refine the theory in order to explain the new data. This is exactly how Albert Einstein originally developed his theory of relativity, in fact, to resolve holes in the previous theories of gravitation and electrodynamics.

Experimentalists have examined the results to see if they could find a flaw in the experiment, to show that these results are incorrect. Meanwhile, theorists have been trying to figure how they could explain the result if it turns out to be true. So far, there's been little success, because each proposed explanation runs into various problems by contradicting other known properties of the universe.

Refining the Test

The experiment works because a bunch of neutrinos created at CERN travel 730 kilometers to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. These neutrinos are created by collisions back at CERN, so one of the possible sources of error could be that the physicists don't exactly know which neutrino came from which collision. There are statistical methods that physicists use in these cases, and they're generally considered accurate enough, but in this case it is one point of "fuzziness" that may have resulted in the unusual results.

Physicists like to tackle these challenges head on, though, so they worked to eliminate the fuzziness. Instead of having a more continuous collision (and thus a more continuous beam of neutrinos), they broke the beam up into short, 3-nanosecond pulses. Each tiny pulse underwent a collision, and then the neutrinos traveled to the Italian detector.

The results were consistent with the earlier findings - the neutrinos arrived approximately 60 nanoseconds before they should have been able to. The neutrinos still seem to be moving faster than the speed of light.

However, one problem of this new approach is that they got a lot fewer results. They were only able to conduct this test about 20 times. Further tests will need to be run, both at CERN and in other laboratories. If this is a result which only shows up in the OPERA experiment, there will continue to be the possibility that it's some sort of equipment issue rather than an actual violation of a basic law of physics. Confirming results carried out somewhere else would make this claim a lot more solid and go a long way toward convincing the physics community that it's correct.

If the experimentalists are able to replicate the results, then the race will really be on for the theoretical physicists to come up with an explanation that works.

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November 22, 2011 at 11:17 pm
(1) jeff says:

A very well written update with none of the drama of other articles. Mr. Jones explains what is happening simply and cleanly without bias on one side or the other.

November 23, 2011 at 3:04 am
(2) Otto Krog says:

I have a theory.

All crackpots have.

There is no vacuum.

If there was a vacuum, the speed of light would be infinite.

Antimatter is the mind, the soul, the awareness and the (un)consciousness of all living creatures.

Crackpot indeed, but give my Crestroyer Theory a chance at:


November 25, 2011 at 11:54 am
(3) Robin says:

I can’t wait for the scientist to come with an acceptable explanation. This kind of news really gives me the feeling that there are still aspects of the universe we know absolutely nothing about.

My own suspicion of what the cause might be is that neutrinos are not affected by gravity (but they do obey the speed of light speedlimit). Therefore the path that neutrinos travel is a little bit shorter and it could explain the 60 nano seconds. But then again it’s more likely I’m horribly wrong (I haven’t even tried to do the math that’s needed to prove my suspicion).

November 28, 2011 at 9:51 am
(4) kenkoskinen says:

It is a good update. The interesting point is the lower number of faster than light neutrinos when the neutrino beam was broken up into intermitent pulses.

I’m thinking we might be looking at some quantum factors like entanglement and superposition kicking in when conditions are right. Super luminal speed or instaneous interaction is or has been confirmed in entanglement experiments. What if two superpostioned and entangled particles arose in that specific condition? It would rise to the appearance of a SR violation. However, it might not be a specific SR violation since in quantum mechanical entities obey their own rules. SR is bestly seen on larger scales but where the two realms interact there could be some fuzziness.

This in itself might suggest the existence of a new lower level of physics. By this I mean there could be a subquantum realm. In plainer language, that means the quantum particles are composites or are made up of tinier entities. If this is the case then some neutrinos could appear in tact where they normally ought not to be.

I think it might all depend on experimental design just as the old double split quantum experiments proved for the particle/wave duality. In the end it might be hinting at new physics and a lower realm that we have yet to explore. If this is correct, we might not be able to directly cut through this block of cheese. However several different lines of study might be able to infer its existence. Just saying …

November 30, 2011 at 6:37 am
(5) Bhavesh Chauhan says:

Everyone has a theory about these particles, but here are my insights.

Please go through once and let me know if I am wrong somewhere.

December 3, 2011 at 2:02 pm
(6) Maurice says:

It would be interesting to hear the moderator’s thoughts on the theories you see in articles on Astronomy concerning that most of the unseen matter in the Universe is accelerating much faster than the speed of light. These theories are based on the original mass and the speed equations of the expansion at the time of the Big Bang. With the furthest visible galaxies accelerating to almost the speed of light, this means that the unseen universe would be many times larger and traveling much faster than the speed of light (which we can never see), or at the speed of the accelerating expansion.
If this theory is true, than the real Speed Cop in the Universe is not the speed of light but the rate of Inflation. This brings up many issues, even to Dark Energy that may be related more to equations of mass in accelerating Inflation and its attractions, than to a separate force.

December 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm
(7) ProfChuck says:

Dirac and Feynman made a lot of progress in the quest for a unification, or at least a reconciliation, of classical physics and quantum physics. Things occur at the quantum level that, at first blush, seem to violate both the general and special theories of relativity. This is one of the reasons Einstein disliked or at least distrusted quantum mechanics. His famous observation “God does not play dice” is an example of his frustration with the idea. Later Hawking stated “Not only does God play dice he throws them into a dark corner where you cannot see the result.”
Relativistic quantum electrodynamics and its successor Relativistic quantum chromodynamics are representives of the efforts to tie classical relativity and the quantum world together. Much has been accomplished but there are still large holes in our understanding. I think that while a revision or extension of relativity may be the result of these observations the critical issue is causality. It is one thing to “fine tune” Einstein but sending information into the past would require a complete restructuring of physics.

April 6, 2012 at 11:41 pm
(8) jelefege says:

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