Challenging Einstein: Faster-Than-Light Neutrino Result From CERN And Explaining What It Really Means

What are the implications if this is right?

Scientists are not the jumpy guys, but no one can deny that the implications will be huge! The existence of a speed greater than the speed of light in vacuum immediately contradicts one of the two postulates of Special Relativity (SR). The very structure of SR is based on the constancy of the speed of light to all observers. It doesn’t matter at what speed you’re moving, you’ll always see light move away from you at the velocity of light. (Contrast this with, say, a velocity of a bus!) Furthermore, this is the highest speed achievable. Information, in whatever form, cannot travel faster than this speed. The neutrino result strikes at the very foundations of SR.

No More Relativity? That's preposterous!

So what, you may say? All that we have to bend our mind across is simply the fact that Einstein got it wrong. No, this is much bigger than that! Scientists would’ve had NO problem if they could get away by just saying that Einstein was wrong, but it’s much deeper.

SR teaches us how to do mechanics, how to measure quantities like energy, momentum and even mass. It teaches us what space is and what time is, instructing us never to use those terms separately, but to say space-time’. It tells us how one quantity in one frame might look to another guy moving with some velocity relative to the first frame. It tells us how electric and magnetic fields might look to observers at different speeds and integrates the laws of mechanics with those of electromagnetism.

When SR is integrated with quantum mechanics, it gives a huge body of knowledge called Quantum Field Theory (QFT). QFT is a pinnacle of success of human thought, giving us theories like Quantum Electrodynamics, which are unbelievably accurate. To change SR would be to really shake up the extremely successful construction of physical theories, a process that took place over the last 80 years and more. This involved countless experiments, tremendous toil and, in cases, amazing display of genius! Further, all of it fits together. It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to re-create a different edifice explaining all of the phenomena explained just as satisfactorily.

No, this result just cannot be right. They’re making a mistake somewhere, says an inner voice in me. Scientists all around the world might be saying just this.

But how can such a result be wrong?

The best answer to this is that SR is too strong and backed up by too much evidence accumulated over the past century to be proved wrong by one experiment. There needs to be good experiments to back up these results and that will only come in the coming years. A 6-sigma effect is hard to ignore, but scientists have been there, done that and found some error or the other in incidents like this in the past.

The Super Kamiokande neutrino detector in Japan. Each of the dots is a photomultiplier detector to detect light. This will be filled with water mixed with certain heavy ions. The equipment kept on the floor is about as high as a human and this sets the scale

The loophole has to lie within the measurement procedure. There is still room for uncertainty in the measurement of the departure times (i.e. measuring when the neutrinos are launched) and in the very working of the GPS systems. Maybe, instead of neutrinos, the fault lies in what we understand about GPS systems and how they work. Yes, this is a mundane explanation compared to the exotic ones flying around, like quantum gravity and shortcut through extra-dimensions, but one which works perfectly. We just need to figure out the flaw! Furthermore, we will need other experiments (like the Super Kamiokande, pic above) to independently find such an effect.

Signing Off

Dear reader, I hope that you’ve not lost the crux of the plot in all the details. Even if you’re not in the least bit associated with physics, feel the beauty of it all. Yes, people are worried that it might turn 100 years of physics on its head, but then scientists are working to resolve it. The OPERA group has declined any interpretation of the results, whether theoretical or phenomenological. Scientists are working to prove their own results wrong. How honest and beautiful that is!

Ohh! RReally? Not so fast!

I’m hedging my bets on Einstein at this moment. The Grand Old Man of Physics has had too much of an impact to be dismissed just like that. I’m hoping that this result simply goes away. I can imagine him sitting in heaven, watching over us and nodding his head in slight disapproval with a smug smile on his lips, saying, Check your measurements again, lads. My calculations are fine.Or he might be worried sick. Surely, he’s proud of the work of these scientists, who are a few generations his successor.

Couple of excellent articles on this:

Sean Carroll writes on Cosmic Variance:
CERN’s official blog – Quantum Diaries :

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.