Scientists at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab, announced a startling finding yesterday that would be enough to make Albert Einstein roll over in his grave: Subatomic particles, called neutrinos, have been found to be traveling faster than the speed of light.
If true, this development would break a fundamental pillar of physics. Einstein’s special theory of relativity has always told us nothing is supposed to move faster than the speed of light, 299,792,458 meters per second.
CERN scientists are now asking others to verify the measurements before claiming the discovery to be true.
“The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN.
Rob Plunkett, a scientist at Fermilab, one of only two labs in the world that can try to replicate CERN’s results, says he’s keeping an open mind, but “it’s dangerous to lay odds against Einstein. Einstein has been tested repeatedly over and over again.”
Post science writer Joel Achenbach says that he’s sticking with Einstein, at least for now, because:
Einstein’s theory... isn’t based primarily on measurements.
Einstein’s theory emerged from thought experiments. It was a deep insight into the nature of the universe. Subsequent experiments for more than a century have verified that he was right.
For the new finding to carry a lot of weight, it would need more than an instrumental measurement. It would need a theoretical foundation. Otherwise you have something that is enigmatic rather than revolutionary.
When CERN clocked the neutrino beam, it was traveling 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists put the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference significant.
Antonio Ereditato, CERN spokesperson, says “the potential impact on science [of the findings] is too large to draw immediate conclusions or attempt physics interpretations.”
At the very least, scientists say, it will shake the very foundation of what we believe.