Scientists Report Breaking The Speed Of Light But Can It Be True?

The AP is reporting results from a group of Italian researchers using equipment from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that claims they’ve measured particles traveling at a speed greater than the speed of light.

From the AP story:

Scientists at the world’s largest physics lab say they have clocked subatomic particles traveling faster than light, a feat that – if true – would break a fundamental pillar of science.

The readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.

Yeah, sounds like a good idea.

If this result were true (it has not been published, and thus not peer-reviewed, yet) then the structure of the world might be very different from what we believe. Einstein’s theory of relativity is built on the idea that there is an absolute cosmic speed limit — that light is the thing traveling at this speed is beside the point. Among other things, the existence of that speed limit sets the structure of causality in the Universe.

In other words, that effects follow causes and not the other way around, which is, in general, a good thing. The universe would be a whole lot harder to understand without this link between cause and effect. Think of it as being shot before the trigger is pulled. It’s more nuanced than what I am describing here (of course) but breaking light-speed means breaking relativity and casuality as we know it flows from relativity.

So if these results are correct then we might have to go back and start rebuilding pretty much all of modern foundational physics. Are they correct? This kind of thing has been claimed before. My colleague Steve Manly who works with neutrino beams in experiments like the ones described by the AP story puts it this way, “I’m not planning to eliminate the relativity portion of my general physics course anytime soon.”

Based on past experience, these results are probably wrong but it sure would be a wild ride if they prove correct.

Adam Frank is an astrophysicist. He blogs at NPR’s 13.7 and you can keep up with more of what he’s thinking on Facebook andTwitter.

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