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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faster than light travel?

See updated post 1/7/12

Update: 12/11
The group at CERN has now repeated their own experiment with more rigorous controls and gotten the same result.  Nevertheless, the majority of physicists predict that FTL neutrinos will turn out to be no more than a measurement error.  Further tests are underway.

Yes folks, physicists may have found evidence of faster-than-light (FTL) travel.  Before you start preparing for your trip to Alpha Centauri, a couple of caveats are in order.  First, the evidence for FTL travel is based on one set of experiments, albeit bridging three years of work. The data must be repeated and confirmed by other researchers, during which time other explanations may be found.  And second, the things putatively doing the FTL traveling are neutrinos.  There is no evidence that FTL travel could be applicable to anything larger than these subatomic particles. 

That said, if true, the impact of this discovery cannot be overstated.  For starters, it could mean overthrowing Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

The experiment itself was straightforward enough.  Physicists at CERN (near Geneva) fired neutrinos through the ground at a particle detector in Italy, 730 kilometers away.  On average, the neutrinos arrived about 60 nanoseconds (billionths of a second) faster than a photon of light making the same trip.  It sounds simple enough, an ordinary rate equals distance divided by time problem.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that at these speeds, tiny discrepancies can really add up.  For example, suppose the distance traveled is off by just a few meters?  Or that the start time for the neutrinos leaving CERN was miscalculated by a couple of nanoseconds?  These tiny corrections could account for the 60 nanosecond apparent lead the neutrinos have over light.

Needless to say, many physicists are skeptical of the FTL claim.  You can read more about it here and here.