Friday, September 23, 2011

Researchers clock faster-than-light subatomic particles

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Faster than the speed of light? Normally we think of The Flash, Superman, or perhaps a Federation starship using warp drive. In other words, we think science fiction or comic books. After all, surpassing that speed would overturn one of the fundamental laws of physics, Einstein's theory of relativity, often simply known by the equation E = mc2.

However, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, believe they have discovered subatomic particles called neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. That said, with physics potentially about to be turned upside down, the scientists are so astounded by the discovery that they are asking others to verify them.

Antonio Ereditato, spokesman for the researchers, said that measurements taken over three years showed neutrinos pumped from CERN near Geneva to Gran Sasso in Italy had arrived 60 nanoseconds quicker than light would have done. The margin for error in the measurements was 10 nanoseconds, which means that even taking that into account, the neutrinos' speed was still faster than light.

He added, "We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing. We now want colleagues to check them independently."

James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, said "The feeling that most people have is this can't be right, this can't be real. They are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they've done and really scrutinise it in great detail.

"They are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they've done and really scrutinize it in great detail, and ideally for someone elsewhere in the world to repeat the measurements."

The neutrino is an elementary sub-atomic particle which is electrically neutral and weakly interacting. Neutrinos are able to pass through ordinary matter nearly unaffected and have have a very tiny, but still nonzero mass.

Neutrinos are created by certain types of radioactive decay or in nuclear reactions such as those occurring in the Sun. The name really means "small neutral one."

Fermilab head theoretician Stephen Parke said, "It's a shock. It's going to cause us problems, no doubt about that - if it's true." Fermilab, in Chicago, had similar faster-than-light results in 2007, but those came with such a huge margin of error that its scientific validity was discounted. Scientists at Fermilab have promised to start verification work on the CERN results immediately.

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