So folks are buzzing about a claim that scientists may have observed particles called neutrinos moving faster than light. We don't have a lot of the science behind this claim yet - they'll have a presentation at CERN tomorrow about it, I've heard - but I am very, very, very inclined to think a measurement error was overlooked somewhere along the line. This isn't like discovering a new planet or a new medicine or even a new particle. If true, this would turn everything we know about physics on its head.

So yeah, I'm skeptical. The fact that you're reading this on a computer shows we understand a lot of physics pretty well, so the best thing to do here is to calm down and see what comes out of this. But I'd bet against it.

... and I'd win that bet either way. If I'm right, I make money. If I'm wrong, warp speed! Woohoo! :)
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68 comments
 
Yes, very much trying to stay calm about this. It would be really really really awesome, though. Heee!!!
 
I bet they forgot to carry the one. People always forget to carry the one.
 
was the measurement made in Miles per second or Km per second???
 
I've probably seen five "groundbreaking" claims along these lines over the years. Each one fizzled and evaporated under further examination. I don't expect this one to be any different.
 
I agree with you ... less than 1 on 10000 than it's correct.
So 9999/10000 is a measurement error.
 
STOP BEING A KILL JOY!!! If this is true it means I get my jedi powers! Right? Right? Don't ruin this for me!
 
Finally the voice of reason. I've been telling people the same, now I got the BA to back me up.
 
I just hope that if they turn out to not be traveling FTL that someone will report on it. Far too often does it occur where some major scientific claim arises only to be forgotten or falsely spread as fact after examined closely and determined to be false.
 
My non-mathmatical mind insists that if E=MC2 is wrong then atom bombs should be unexploding all over the place.
 
I can't wait for my cold fusion powered star ship.
 
They did say, in the article I read, that they couldn't find any instrument error that might have accounted for this -- but that they were referring it to other scientists to try to find out what's going on. So they, too, are acknowledging that the "faster than speed of light" thing is pretty unlikely, but they need help finding out why they seem to be getting that result.

Still...I'd love it if they found that under certain circumstances, they really could exceed the speed of light, and opened up a whole new type of physics never yet dreamed of. Not likely, but...what a cool idea.
 
They're tachyons! Spock has been beamed to a planet with a transporter deflector shield. Spock must die!
 
I think someone forgot to "carry the one".
 
+Phyl Good confirms my impression. Quotes from the scientists themselves were very reasonable. They can't find the error, and they've looked hard. So they're looking for ideas, someone to try to reproduce it, etc.
 
Some quick back-of-the-envelope maths using the figures from the Telegraph article:

time difference = 60ns = approx. 18m (at light speed)
distance travelled = 730,000m

fractional error = 18/730000 = 2.5e-5 = 1/40,000

So, for every 40km light travels, a neutrino beam that was emitted at the same time would lead by 1m.

This seems like a large discrepancy to me. So large that it would surely have been noticed before?

[I was under the impression – I am not a particle physicist – that neutrino beams were sent through the Earth and detected as a matter of course. If so, seems odd that this has never showed up before. Also, if the effect is really 1:40,000 it would show up big style in supernovae as +Randall Munroe suggests.]
 
Looks like someone forgot to carry the 1, that's all.
 
I'm inclined to agree about a measurement error, but with 15,000 tests, its more likely to be that the detectors are not calibrated properly. I mean, they arrived only a few billionths of a second early, its not warp drive yet folks so cool your jets.
 
+Dean Barnett If 'c' ends up being faster than thought, then 'E' would actually be larger. Nuclear bombs wouldn't unexplode, they'd superexplode. (Me == not a mathematician or physicist, in case I've somehow messed up the math).
 
I just want to be able to teleport. Is that so much to ask?
 
Again, me == not a physicist, but this couldn't have anything to do with the curvature of the Earth, could it? I was just playing with this in my brain, and it seems like photons (being affected by mass and gravity) would travel a curved path, while neutrinos (being completely aloof to both mass and gravity) would travel a straight path.

Just my brain droppings. Feel free to correct me (in fact, please do).
 
This is amazing. Even if it's not true, think of the possibilities. Instead of just worrying about facts, what if we can't solidly prove it because we don't have the technology? Great stuff!
 
Phil, I have come back in time to tell you that it is all true. And you know it is true by the fact that I was able to move backwards through time... or something.
 
Similar apparent faster-than-light effects can be seen with photonic wave packets in dispersive media, but it is due to a group vs. phase velocity problem. If a packet is designed to have a sharp spatial leading edge, that edge will not move faster than the speed of light. With a leading "tail" for wider packets, the packet can spread out in time and the leading tail can arrive before the centroid making it superficially appear like faster-than-light propagation. I'm not sure if this is what OPERA is seeing or not, but this would be my first guess. The earth media does have a small index of refraction for the neutrinos via the MSW effect, so dispersive effects of a packet through a cord in the earth are not out of the question. It might seem trivial, but there was a major buzz about this kind of thing in the photonics community a while back and no one initially thought about the wave packet effect. It may tell you something about the material interaction of the earth with neutrinos and thus something interesting about the earth properties. I'm not saying this is really what's happening, of course. They probably already investigated this. Indeed, I think it would be spectacularly cool if it was a real faster-than-light effect.
 
My understanding of Relativity is that it is theoretically possible for a massive particle to go faster than light, but not to be accelerated beyond the speed of light. Where pre-exisiting FTL neutrinos would come from, I have no idea.
 
sts +Leland Jory Neutrinos and photons both possess energy and travel along null geodesics. These geodesics are straight lines in very weak gravity fields (eg. Earth, Sun) but are twisted by really dense objects like black holes. They "feel mass" this way so don't always move in straight lines. The spacetime curvature induced by the Earth's mass is incredibly tiny and unlikely to lead to any significant corrections to this result. For this experiment they are pretty much moving in straight lines because the gravity is so weak here.

What these guys are claiming is that the neutrinos go from CERN to OPERA in a straight line (through the Earth) in a shorter time than photons would take to travel the same (straight line) distance. If this is what happened it would be an incredible result. For now, lets wait for more analysis, an actual paper and independent corroboration.
 
+Leland Jory You're welcome. It's pretty cool when stuff like this happens. Fodder for the skeptical scientist.
 
Independent confirmation is definitely required here. But how exciting if it's confirmed! The very foundation of modern physics would be shaken. "There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths." - Carl Sagan
 
I agree more info/testing is required. On the other hand, how cool would it be to have something totally game changing like this? The possibility is exciting, you know, in a cold fusion sorta way!
 
+Randall Munroe Based on that, I can conclude that the universe is in fact a simulation put out by the Advanced Alien equivalent of /b/.
 
I tend to agree with you about the measurement error. I'm betting that they forgot to correct for some known variable most likely the distance of the two points of measurement.
 
To be fair to these guys, they apparently spent 2 years trying to find the error!
Nick H
 
I definitely think skepticism is called for and am by no means sold on this. I would even say that I agree that it's likely that this incident was an error.

However, I don't think it would be too shocking to find out that our entire theory of physics is incorrect. Physics as we know it is obtained from observation and validated by successful predictions. However, we are only capable of observing a very small portion of all of the events in the universe. Some parts we do not observe because they are simply not easily detectable to us, some because they are too far, some because they are obscured, some because they are too small or big, too fast or slow. Despite having probably millions or billions of observations in support of our current ideas on physics, the fact is, there will always be a vast amount of the universe we haven't yet seen. Therefore it is always possible that the theories we have come up with are exceptions that happen to only be true for the millions of things we happen to have tested them on. It's quite the same as the emergence of modern physics in the first place...relativity only has noticeable effects in rather extreme situations...situations that in our everyday life...for thousands of years...we have not observed. We start observing and seeing that this drastic change to our thoughts of physics is necessary as we look at a much wider range of the universe. So then, in the end, it seems likely that sooner or later when we come to see even MORE of the universe (bigger or smaller, faster, denser, ...) we may find that once again Einstein only solved a "special case".

I remember back in high school physics after my second year, our last topics were quantum and relativity. It always stuck with me when after almost two years of learning and experimentally verifying all of these things regarding classical physics our teacher referred to EVERYTHING we had learned so far as a "special case" of physics..."big slow world".

As fantastic as classical physics worked with its limited set of observations, modern physics quite possibly suffers the very same problem.
 
Agreed we haven't even seen the so-called big-bang and to cling to the concept there was only one big-bang is pure religious dogma turned into semi-science dogma. Amazing how we cling to worn-out old ideas so long?
 
CBS evening news made comment about this discovery. I commented to my wife that we had better wait and see on this tidbit---this was before seeing the followup's on the net.
 
+Robert Hafer That's what I remember from my relativity classes. Moving up to the speed of light requires more and more energy, approaching infinite energy. Moving from infinite speed back down to the speed of light mirrors this. There's one difference, though: a square-root of negative one. So there's an imaginary number tossed in there.

When I studied relativity, we learned that physicists disagreed what this meant. Some thought it meant it was impossible, some thought it meant you were going back in time, etc. Granted, this was a decade ago so new theories might have cropped up since then.
 
I want this to be true so badly. My skepticism is holding by a thread. :)
 
After I read about this, I instantly went to read what you had to say, I knew you wouldn't just jump on the FTL band wagon, but instead would approach it scientifically. Thanks for your balanced objectivity.
 
Oh come on! Can you see the absolute chaos this would create. Tonnes of physics theory would have to be revised.
 
Not all chaos is bad. If this is the real thing, and it finally leads to a unified theory of every thing - voila- Grail!
Nick H
 
Well yes, any bad truth (such as that which causes us to revise all of physics) is better than a convenient lie. However, the idea that we have to throw out all physics is not really true. Again, it is like relativity. Yes, relativity proved prior physics "wrong" but the fact is, that "wrong" physics still works to predict the types of problems it measured in the first place which is why it is still used in engineering today. As long as you understand the circumstances in which a theory is right or wrong, you can still responsibly use an oversimplified theory in the right circumstances. While this news would tell us that relativity is not a correct model of what is happening, it does not mean that, within certain constraints, our current physics model doesn't still have practical and predictive power. It would simply mean, once again, that it is a theory for only a piece of the puzzle. It's not as though we didn't already think we had our work cut out for us.
 
It's important to remember that Classical physics still 'works' in mundane applications and Relativity 'works' in some other uses. The Laws of Physics won't have changed, just our understanding of how they worked all along. We have observed gravitational lensing, any new theory will have to take that into account.

Hmmm, I was hoping that would be more eloquent
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+Robert Hafer It's more accurate to say that Relativity reduces down to Classical Physics under certain situations. Classical Physics won't produce 100% accurate results, but if you're figuring out how long it'll take a car driving 60mph from New York City to Chicago then you can live with 99.999999999% accurate results.

If this winds up being true and opens up a new branch of physics then it'll just mean that Relativity will be 99.999999999% accurate except under certain conditions when New Physics will take over.
 
Leave it to the Bad Astronomer to put things into perspective. Though I am skeptical too. But this is science. Something happens and, this time, it's unexpected. So the results are reviewed and retested. There is an an answer and science will find it. The best part about all this is that with new evidence comes new ideas and new understanding, completing the cycle of science.
 
This is where I get stuck on this speed limit, assuming we are at exactly or something like 99.9999999999999999999999 % speed of light what happens if you run to the front of the ship from the back? Poof your gone!
 
What happens to our perception of the laws of Physic's once we leave the gravity well of our sun. this seems to be the point of the ability to use a Jump Drive, I know it's SciFi but 1940's SciFI is our reality, a lot of it anyways.
 
At 99.999999999999% the speed of light, the front of your ship is the back. Anybody have a good reference for Einstien-Lorenz transformations?

 
Robert would we be squished , meaning a ship 1 mile long would be infinity small and infinite mass and not able to move in any direction or a perception from an outside observer.
 
It sounds like the scientists are pretty skeptical themselves, their press release was pretty much them saying "We can't find our mistake, can you?"
 
Einstien-Lorenz i have read about that in stories before but never researched.
 
I remember trying to model the transformations on a Z-80 processor long ago. Mass increases, length decreases and time dilates as you approach the speed of light, if I remember right. There was also something about them in my non-Euclidian geometry class; someone help me out here.

 
I get the drift of the ruler effect and know this is from an observers point of view. Like the post from Phil said this is not the first time what appeared to be faster then light travel appeared to be seen. I think the first time I read about it was Jets from a Singularity or a HyperNova shell. Just was no follow up on the story.
 
Would that be a "rectal mucosa" projection
 
Lets get Mr. Hawking on the math. Then we will know!
 
After an evening away for my G+ addiction, I was just about to post the VERY exciting news about evidence of a particle perhaps moving faster than the speed of light, when I thought to myself, "Lets make use of the good ol' new search function. LOL... Um, yeah, a few people have already taken notice.

But of all the posts, I appreciated +Philip Plait's reaction. Let's take a breath here. As he so elegantly pointed out, we're doing pretty good with our current understanding of physics, and if this results turns all that we know upside down, perhaps a day or two reflection on the actual data might be in order.

But also like he says, if it's true.... Mr. Sulu, Warp Factor Eight.
 
I put Phil's idea into action years ago; it works. Whenever I find myself arguing obvious longstanding scientific facts, I try to remember to turn the argument into a propositional bet. Recently I've won two dinners— they're lined up right now! Most satisfying.
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