The CERN research institute near Geneva has detected neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light – a claim that could undermine Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Scientists around the world have said the discovery of the sub-atomic particles apparently travelling faster than light could force a major rethink of theories on the makeup of the cosmos – but the findings would first have to be independently confirmed.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is an extraordinary claim,” eminent cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees said.
The CERN research institute said measurements over three years had shown neutrinos pumped to a receiver in Gran Sasso, Italy, had arrived 60 nanoseconds sooner than light would have done - a tiny difference that could nonetheless undermine Albert Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity.
Professor Jenny Thomas, who works on neutrinos at CERN's friendly rival Fermilab near Chicago in the United States, commented: “The impact of this measurement, were it to be correct, would be huge.”
CERN’s own research director Sergio Bertolucci said if the findings were confirmed - and at least two separate laboratories are likely to start work on this in the near future – “it might change our view of physics”.
The high level of caution is normal in science where anything that could be a breakthrough discovery, especially overturning well-established thinking, is in principle always checked and rechecked by other researchers. The discovery would force a rethink of fundamental theories of physics and of the nature of the universe. It would herald a revolution in physics comparable to that caused by Einstein’s publication of his Special Theory of Relativity.
In a comment issued by CERN, the world's leading laboratory for particle research on the edge of Geneva, Bertolucci underscored this principle. “When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artefact of the measurement to account for it, it is normal to invite broader scrutiny....it is good scientific practice,” he said.
The team, working in an experiment dubbed OPERA, pumped neutrinos - often called ghost particles because they pass through matter, and human bodies, unnoticed - from CERN 730 km to Gran Sasso south of Rome. Over three years, and from 15,000 neutrino “events”, a huge detector at the Italian centre deep under mountain rock recorded what OPERA spokesman Antonio Ereditato described as the “startling” findings. He said his team had high confidence they had measured correctly and excluded any possibility of some outside influence, or artefact, affecting the outcome. “My dream is now that other colleagues find we are right,” he added.
In Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which underpins the current view of how the universe works, nothing can travel faster than light - 300,000 km per second - because its mass would become impossibly infinite. Einstein’s theory has been tested thousands of times over the past 106 years and only recently have there been just slight hints that the behaviour of some elementary particles of matter might not fit into it.
These hints were detected last year in Fermilab’s MINOS experiment with neutrinos, but - unlike those of OPERA - were found to be within a normal margin of error.
Fermilab’s Thomas, who is likely to be involved in MINOS experiments to check the CERN-Gran Sasso measurements, said if they were correct “it would overturn everything we thought we understood about relativity and the speed of light”.
The OPERA team is due to formally present its findings to the scientific community later today at CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, which is smashing particles together in research on how the universe began.