Neutrinos faster than light, take two / by Zachary Copfer

[vodpod id=Video.15717499&w=425&h=350&fv=] This clip from NewsyVideos provides a nice summary of the chatter surrounding the recent discoveries going on over at the LHC (really expensive machine that smashes protons into one an other). Although this story originally broke back in September, I decided to post about it now because the folks at CERN (the research group working the LHC) have conducted a second experiment which confirmed their original findings.

Back in September CERN released a paper stating that they found a particle which could possibly maybe travel faster than the speed of light. You see, when they smash protons together they get these wonderful little particles called neutrinos. Just for fun they decided to direct a stream of these neutrinos to a detector located under a mountain in Italy 732 Km (about 454 Miles) away from the LHC.

The neutrinos arrived at the detector more quickly than expected. In fact, when they crunched the numbers they found that in order to make the trip as quickly as they did the neutrinos must have traveled faster than the speed of light. This is of course  against the known rules of the universe. Back in the early 1900's Einstein set the cosmic speed limit to c (the speed of light). Because of the gravity of the implications this find could have on our understanding of the physical world, CERN has been uber careful in checking and rechecking and rechecking their results. Actually they made about 15,000 measurements. Recently, they even tried modifying their test by firing the neutrinos in short bursts separated by large breaks. The reason for this was to decrease the margin of error in the experiment and provide a much more precise measurement. They obtained the same results.

Even with this new confirmation, the scientific community is extremely skeptical of this finding. First of all, it very much goes against what physicists have believed for over 100 years. But more importantly, as of now, the tests have all been conducted by the same group on the same equipment. Until another group independent from OPERA carries out a totally different experiment and gets the same results scientists will not take the notion of particles zooming past light seriously. The media however, seems to be having a field day with this. And why not? Anything that gets science in the headlines and gets people talking about the implications of physics on our daily lives in our daily lives is a good thing.

So what are the implications of a particle which travels faster than light? Most seem to be reporting that this finding, if confirmed, would turn our world upside down. As though suddenly the world might implode. The more likely scenario is that after the initial hoopla we will find that most of the theories currently in place will still accurately describe the universe. Equations and theories will shift and settle a bit but all that we currently believe will not be thrown out the window. I keep hearing talk that this will completely upset special relativity. And it will, but only sort of. You see most of special relativity is actually based on the fact that light travels at a constant speed. So, even if this constant speed of light isn't the universal speed limit it still, according to our perspective, means that time and space are relative. One possible bit of fun that could come from particles traveling faster than light is time travel. The speed of time, at least for us, is basically the same as the seed of light. This is because when an event occurs there is no way for us to know it until the light reaches us. You can think of it as though we are traveling into the future at the speed of light. So, if we could send something faster than light it would move faster than we would into the future. Now clearly we can't build spaceships made of neutrinos and zoom off faster than light. However, we could, in theory, package information into neutrinos and send them flying into the future.

As exciting as all of this might sound, it is still much more likely that we will find the neutrinos in fact do not travel faster than light. Even if that is what finally comes of this at least the process could prove to be a wonderful chance to teach the importance of the scientific method. And in the meantime allow us to dream about what kind of message we might send to the future. Of course if we were to send a message into the future, the people in the future would already know what it says because the message was written and sent in their past.

Do you believe time travel is possible? Do you think the above statement about knowing the message is true or do you have a different view of how time travel might work?