Speed camera needed for neutrinos?

Physicists have said – in a paper and in a seminar at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) – that subatomic particles known as neutrinos can break the the speed of light Albert Einstein held up as a cosmic speed limit 106 years ago. 

They said the neutrinos raced from a particle accelerator outside Geneva, where they were created, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy, a distance of about 730km, about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam. That tiny deviation of about 0.0025 percent (2.5 parts in a hundred thousand) could open up the theoretical possibility of time travel.

Physicist David Krofcheck, at Auckland University,  said that if the research was correct, he was “absolutely stunned and shocked” and New Zealander Stephen Parke, who is head theoretician at the Fermilab near Chicago and was not part of the research, said: “It’s a shock. It’s going to cause us problems, no doubt about that – if it’s true.”

CERN researchers are now looking to the United States and Japan to confirm the results, perhaps through a similar neutrino experiment at Fermilab. Alvaro DeRejula, a theorist at CERN, called the claim “…flabbergasting: If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything,” he said, adding: “It looks too big to be true. The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong.”

See examples of NZ media coverage here.

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following commentary from physicists:

Prof Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey, said:

“The scientists are right to be extremely cautious about interpreting these findings.  If the neutrinos have broken the speed of light, it would overturn a keystone theory from the last century of physics.  That’s possible, but it’s far more likely that that there is an error in the data.  So let me put my money where my mouth is: if the CERN experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.”

Prof Stefan Soldner-Rembold, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester, said:

“Neutrinos are elusive particles that have fascinated physicists for decades, ever since they first appeared in the beta decay of nuclei.  There are three types of neutrinos, often called “flavours” and one of the unique properties of neutrinos is that they can change their flavour when travelling over long distances. Many experiments are being performed to measure these oscillations. One of them, called OPERA, detects neutrinos produced at the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (CERN) in an underground laboratory in the Gran Sasso tunnel in central Italy. The neutrinos travel through the Earth on their way to Gran Sasso since they hardly ever interact with the matter in their way.

“Neutrinos only have a tiny mass, much lower than the mass of electrons, and they should therefore propagate with nearly the speed of light. From Einstein’s theory of relativity we know that the mass-less photons travel exactly with the speed of light and any particle that has mass can only come close to the speed of light, but never fully reach it.

“The distance between CERN and the Gran Sasso tunnel is 730 km and has been measured very precisely. The time of flight of the neutrinos between the two laboratories can be determined using precise atomic clocks and GPS systems. From this, the OPERA scientists measured the speed of the neutrinos and found that the neutrinos travel slightly faster than the speed of light. This result is completely unexpected. A previous experiment at Fermilab close to Chicago (MINOS) had published a similar result in 2007, where they measured a similar speed difference as OPERA but an uncertainty much larger than OPERA. In 1987, a much smaller upper limit on the speed of neutrinos reaching Earth from a Supernova was found. These neutrinos have much smaller energies than the ones from accelerators which could be an explanation for the difference.

“Particle physicists are still struggling to find theories explaining the effect. Neutrinos might propagate in a warped space-time, whereas light propagates in ordinary space-time. In this way neutrinos can shortcut space, unlike light, make them appear faster than the speed of light. Other explanations are more mundane, related to the measurement process, and all these have to be understood first before any claim for a discovery can be made. At this point, the OPERA scientists say they have found no such explanation and they therefore present the result for the wider science community to scrutinise. If the results are confirmed, though, it would be revolutionary for physics and science.”

Professor Dave Wark, STFC Director of Particle Physics, and leader of the UK group on the T2K neutrino experiment in Japan said:

“If this result is right, it calls into question the laws of Special Relativity that provide the basis for most of modern physics.  We will require a very high standard of proof and confirmation from other neutrino experiments around the world.”

Professor Jenny Thomas, UCL and co-spokesperson for the MINOS neutrino experiment at Fermilab in the USA, said:

“The impact of this measurement, were it to be correct, would be huge. In fact it would overturn everything we thought we understood about relativity and the speed of light.


Examples of NZ coverage so far:

TV 3 News: Roll over Einstein: Law of physics challenged

TV 3 News: Challenging Einstein is usually a losing venture

Radio New Zealand: Particles found to break speed of light

Yahoo NZ News: Faster than light” particles may be physics revolution

Otago Daily Times: Scientists stunned as particles break speed of light

New Zealand Herald: Light-speed result stuns scientists

Stuff.co.nz: Roll over Einstein: Pillar of physics challenged

TV3 news: Scientists claim ‘faster than light’ particle detected

Listen to Simon Mercerpt interviewing University of Auckland Physicist David Krofcheck about the implications of this discovery on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report.