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Scientists Baffled By Seemingly Faster-Than-Light Particles

| 23 Sep 2011 22:02
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Nothing is faster than light. Albert Einstein said so. And yet, recent findings at the CERN physics lab seem to suggest otherwise.

If you're reading this site, I feel safe in assuming you have a master's degree in theoretical physics. Ha! Just kidding. Let's break this down for the layman.

A neutrino is an incredibly small particle, similar to an electron, except that it carries no electrical charge. The CERN facility (near Geneva, Switzerland) houses a machine that fires a stream of these neutrinos (specifically, "muon neutrinos") at an incredibly sensitive measuring device at Italy's Gran Sasso laboratory. This stream of tiny particles is tasked with passing through layers of rock, water and dirt, and by measuring the speed at which it reaches the Italian lab, researchers can get a better understanding of how physics works at the sub-atomic level.

This is crucial because at those hyper-miniature sizes, the physics reactions we all take for granted (gravity, for instance) start to break down, for reasons that are still something of a mystery to modern science.

In a recent CERN test, scientists uncovered another bizarre quirk. They fired the standard neutrino burst, and somehow that cluster of particles reached Italy .00000006 seconds faster than the speed of light.

If you have any familiarity with physics at all, you're likely aware that this sort of thing simply is not supposed to happen. Traditional theory dictates that as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases exponentially, slowing the object and preventing anything from ever beating The Flash in a footrace.

The researchers in charge of this experiment claim that the measurements were significant enough that this wasn't a one-off quirk, but even they seem somewhat baffled by their findings. As a result (and because this phenomenon, if genuine, would radically change our understanding of physics), the scientists have called on their colleagues from around the world to review the tests in the hope that someone might figure out what happened.

"We tried to find all possible explanations for this," Italian researcher Antonio Ereditato told the BBC. "We wanted to find a mistake - trivial mistakes, more complicated mistakes, or nasty effects - and we didn't. When you don't find anything, then you say 'well, now I'm forced to go out and ask the community to scrutinise this'."

"Despite the large [statistical] significance of this measurement that you have seen and the stability of the analysis, since it has a potentially great impact on physics, this motivates the continuation of our studies in order to find still-unknown systematic effects," Dr Ereditato said.

"We look forward to independent measurement from other experiments."

I don't want to jump the gun and demand a time machine based on these findings, but the really intriguing aspect of this situation is that no one really knows what happens if you travel faster than light. Would you actually go back in time? Are you eaten by Langoliers? Would Christopher Lloyd show up in a flying train?

Hopefully the science-types can pin this down somehow.

Source: BBC

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