A recent discovery by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, could potentially revolutionize scientists’ understanding of time, space and the universe.
An experiment at CERN – a hub for physics research located in Geneva, Switzerland – sent neutrinos, a type of subatomic particles, from Geneva to San Grasso, Italy. The particles traveled 60 nanoseconds (0.000000060) faster than light, a slight discrepancy that could shed doubt upon Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which provides the framework for modern physics.
The properties of neutrinos, which are nearly massless and electrically neutral, make them useful for study because they pass directly through most matter with little interaction. There are three types of neutrinos, and the experiment’s initial goal was to study the way neutrinos change types. The realization that the particles traveled faster than light, however, has garnered public interest and made the experiment’s implications broader than originally expected.
The methods of measurement used were highly complex and mathematical, and the researchers have looked for possible sources of error. In order for the experiment’s results to affect physicists’ understanding of Einstein’s theory, CERN’s conclusion must be independently verified by other researchers. Rafael Nepomechie, a UM physics professor, agrees with many others in thinking that the experimenters may have overlooked some systematic error.
But if CERN’s results are verified, the notion that the speed of light is a fundamental speed limit built into the universe would be challenged. “For sure [the verified experiment] would give a valuable clue about the fundamental laws of physics,” Nepomechie said. Regardless, the results of CERN’s experiment do not necessarily imply that relativity is completely wrong.
For now, research teams involved in the T2K experiment in Japan and the MINOS experiment near Chicago will attempt to replicate CERN’s findings. In 2007, the MINOS experiment also saw the possibility of neutrinos moving faster than the speed of the light, but those conclusions have yet to be confirmed.