Was Einstein wrong?
It’s like the first time you realized there was no Santa Claus or no tooth fairy. The speed of light is not the fastest speed possible? You can actually attain a higher speed? Well, you or I couldn’t, but a neutrino possibly could. At least that is the result of an experiment that took place in Europe recently.
Part of Albert Einstein‘s famous theory of relativity states that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. If it did, it would arrive at it’s location before it began the journey. (I know, I know. This is mind-bending stuff.)
The European Center for Particle Physics, CERN, located near Geneva, Switzerland, created neutrinos that were shot through the Alps and into the Gran Sasso Observatory in Italy, a distance of 450 miles. The Italian observatory detected the arrival of the neutrinos. Using precise measurements of distance and timing from GPS, scientists at CERN determined that the neutrinos arrived in Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than expected if they were traveling at the speed of light. (A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.)
Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. The approximately 16,000 neutrinos that made the journey from CERN to Gran Sasso did it in 2.43 milliseconds. The scientists checked and re-checked their data and they computed a faster-than-light speed. But in the true spirit of science, they welcome their colleagues around the world to duplicate the experiment and see if they get similar results.
Scientists at the Fermilab accelerator in suburban Chicago will attempt this experiment in the near future. They found a faster-than-light neutrino result in 2007, but further examination of the results showed the data was flawed.
Neutrinos are about as bizarre as an object can get. They basically weigh nothing and can travel through lead just as easily as they travel through clear air. A neutrino is a subatomic particle that is abundant throughout the universe. It is said that if you hold your hand up to the Sun, millions of neutrinos will pass through your hand in a few seconds. They emanate from the Sun constantly, a result of fusion when hydrogen atoms collide to form helium in the solar furnace.
It is much too soon to begin re-writing the physics textbooks. More experiments will take place trying to replicate the CERN results. In the meantime, the genius of Einstein is undisputed, and the quest for scientific discoveries continue. As for the tooth fairy, well, that’s another story.