Particle may travel faster than the speed of light

By Jarrod Thacker

While it was not as easy as watching an apple fall from a tree, scientists may have discovered evidence for the next breakthrough in the study of physics.

Researchers have found that through repeated testing, neutrinos arrived at a specific destination faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, which nothing is thought possible of doing. A neutrino is a fundamental subatomic particle that has little mass, but no electric charge.

The experiment was conducted from 2009 to 2011, by a large network of researchers working with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The scientists who collaborated with CERN conducted the experiment by creating neutrinos with a particle accelerator in Geneva. These neutrinos were directed through 730 km of the earth’s crust to a particle detector called Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA), located at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy.

Researchers found in this study that the neutrinos arrived at the project in 2.43 milliseconds, or as UK physics professor Dr. Susan Gardner describes, they arrived 60 feet before light would have.

“I think that they really seen something,” Gardner said. “The question is whether what they’ve seen should be interpreted in the way they’ve claimed.”

According to UK faculty, there are many variables that could be the source of this significant result, called systematic errors. These errors could include the miscalculation of distances, the unintended addition of particles or even an error with the synchronized atomic clocks that timed the neutrinos. Some UK faculty and students appear to be cautious in regards to CERN’s claims.

“It’s such a startling result, it would mean rethinking our idea of relativity,” said Tim Gorringe, a UK physics professor. “To be accepted in the scientific community, it would have to validated by other experiments.”

Similar experiments have been conducted in the past, like the U.S. based Fermilab outside of Chicago, Gardner said, but none have had such an impressive margin of error as CERN’s.

Lauren Chism, a physics freshman and member of the UK Society of Physics Students, was excited to hear of the findings, but was disappointed when learning that it was only one laboratory’s results.

“I’d like to see some replication of it, but I don’t think it will happen,” Chism said.

Will Bates, UK physics junior and UK Society of Physics Students, said he believes that media hype has bloated expectations of the study, but accepts that what we currently know of the natural world may be wrong.

That’s the thing about physics — we describe the things around us the best we can until we find a better way to do it,” Bates said.

The implications of this discovery, while interesting, are not especially significant in regards to how we understand the universe, Gorringe said.

He said that Newton’s Laws of Motion apply to everyday things, and would be valid in most cases.

With Einstein’s discovery, it became apparent that those laws were not precisely right, especially at speeds near light.

Gorringe said that this situation is not drastically different. “We learn as we go,” said Christopher Crawford, a UK physics professor.

“We either learn something new about nature or about new techniques in our research processes.”

Verification of CERN’s results could take several years if another experiment can duplicate its results, or it could take a few weeks if someone in the physics community can identify a systematic error, UK faculty said.