Physicists from the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) program at the European Institute for Nuclear Physics recently released a paper claiming that they may have discovered particles that might travel faster than the speed of light. This revelation, if true, would mean that the universal speed limit, as laid out in Einstein’s theory of special relativity, would be incorrect. Relativistic physics is the keystone of our modern understanding of the universe, so this announcement has the potential to be one of the most important findings in over a century.
These astonishing conclusions come from an experiment on a very different type of subatomic particle, known as the neutrino. This particle, the existence of which was first hypothesized by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in the 1930s, is generated during nuclear decay. These miniscule neutral particles barely interact with regular matter, which makes them exceedingly hard to experiment upon. At any given second, there are about 65 billion neutrinos, coming from the sun alone, flying through an area the size of your thumbnail. The vast majority of these neutrinos will fly right through the earth and out the other side.
Making neutrinos even more peculiar, is that they come in three different types: tau, muon and electron. And in an even more bizarre twist, neutrinos are known to spontaneously change from one type into another. It was this bizarre behavior that the OPERA team was investigating when they made their unexpected discovery. They originally intended to generate a beam of muon neutrinos at their lab in Geneva and aim it at a detector in Italy, underneath the Alps. The neutrinos were supposed to fly 732 kilometers through solid rock, with some spontaneously morphing into tau neutrinos along the way. Though most neutrinos were to sail clear through the detector in Italy, a tiny fraction of them would have been picked up on the otvher end.
It was because of this journey that this potentially universe shattering discovery was made. In addition to the proportion of morphed neutrinos detected, the team also made an extremely precise measure of the distance these neutrinos travelled and how long it took them to do so. To determine the distance, they used GPS measurements that were so precise that they were actually able to detect the movement of tectonic plates under the detector. They measured the average travel time to an accuracy of ten billionths of a second (ten nanoseconds), and they found that the neutrinos travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light.
While the OPERA team, like many other scientists, wished that they could dismiss this result as erroneous – and they tried rigorously to do so – they were unable to dismiss the significance of the results. As a result, OPERA published their findings with the hope that the scientific community would be able to see an error in their ways. This is why the scientific process is the one of the most powerful intellectual tools ever created: before any claim is accepted, there must be multiple independent researchers who reach the same conclusions. If faster-than-light neutrinos are a reality, it means that Einstein’s theory, and our current understanding of the universe is fundamentally wrong. Overturning inaccurate models of the universe is the purpose of scientific methodology because nothing, not even the genius of Einstein, is above the demonstrated facts of reality.