Friday night topic: faster-than-light neutrinos

— 5:48 PM on September 23, 2011

Unless you've been living under a rock this week, odds are you've heard about that experiment at CERN—you know, the one where researchers detected particles traveling faster than the speed of light. The media did its thing, sensationalizing the discovery to the extreme and leading some folks to suspect some sort of easy mistake, like a rounding error, or even a hoax, à la the Fleischmann-Pons experiment.

The facts couldn't be farther from that. Here, we seem to have a sizable team of very perplexed researchers, faced with apparently impossible results that they double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked to no avail, humbly beckoning the scrutiny of the scientific community at large. Or, as the AP reports:

CERN said a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 730 kilometres away in Italy travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant. But given the enormous implications of the find, they still spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there were no flaws in the experiment.

"We have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement," said Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern, Switzerland, who was involved in the experiment known as OPERA.

The researchers are now looking to the United States and Japan to confirm the results.

As Nature points out, the discovery could have some rather wide-ranging repercussions if it turns out to be solidly grounded in fact:

The idea that nothing can travel faster than light in a vacuum is the cornerstone of Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity, which itself forms the foundation of modern physics. If neutrinos are travelling faster than light speed, then one of the most fundamental assumptions of science — that the rules of physics are the same for all observers — would be invalidated. "If it's true, then it's truly extraordinary," says John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN.

More interesting still, some digging at Wikipedia suggests the discovery doesn't come entirely out of left field:

In 1985 it was proposed by Chodos et al. that neutrinos can have a tachyonic nature.[7][8] Today, the possibility of having standard particles moving at superluminal speeds is a natural consequence of unconventional dispersion relations that appear in the Standard-Model Extension,[9][10][11] a realistic description of the possible violation of Lorentz invariance in field theory. In this framework, neutrinos experience Lorentz-violating oscillations and can travel faster than light at high energies.

Will this discovery turn out to redefine physics, or will the results ultimately be repudiated? What's your take? Discuss.

(The researchers' full paper, entitled "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam," is freely available here in PDF format, for those interested.)

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