Faster Than Light Particles? Slow Down a Minute…

I have been fascinated by all the media hoopla following the stunning announcement last month by scientists working at the OPERA project in Italy. Scientists there think that they may have discovered particles called neutrinos traveling at speeds faster than light.  That is, the particles arrived at the detector earlier than light would have arrived when traveling in a vacuum.

Needless to say, if true that would appear to stand modern physics and the universe as we understand it upside down!  So much of modern physics is based upon Einstein’s theory of relativity, which holds that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light.

There was an immediate spate of reporting and opinion declaring that “Everything we know about the universe is wrong”.

I thought to myself, “Really?”

Ever since the media hyping of “cold fusion” back in the 1980s, I have learned to be cautious when hearing reports of stunning new scientific discoveries.  We all want to believe in amazing new revelations and the happy fact is that credible reports of fantastic advances in science and technology arrive on an almost daily basis.  But when something is reported that seems “too good to be true”, or that doesn’t at all fit into our current understanding of the world…open-minded but healthy skepticism is warranted.

This morning as I write this, some scientists who have reviewed the OPERA data are raising the possibility of an instrumentation error.  Some are suggesting that the effects of gravity on the clocks was not taken into account.  Apparently the slighty differing amounts of gravity at the locations of the two clocks cold cause one to run slightly faster than the other.  I have to admit: I am amazed that some human beings know enough about physics to even propose this explanation!

Another challenge to the results points out that if the neutrinos were actually traveling faster than light, energy transfer between particles moving at different speeds would result in a trail of additional radiated particles…which were not observed or not reported by the OPERA team.

Neither of these challenges suffice to disprove the claim of faster-than-light particles, but they do point out the value of peer review to the advancement of science.  However, if the rest of the scientific community is unable to disprove the claim, or better yet replicate and expand upon it…we may be in for several years of revision and upheaval in the world of physics.

Think about this: all of the industrial sensing technology we use today is based upon the existing laws of physics as we understand them.  What kind of sensing technology implications might there be if new physical principles were discovered and quantified?

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