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Playing with Light

The implications of the faster-than-light neutrinos experiment are both exhilarating and chilling.

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The news about the exotic particle neutrinos breaking the speed of light, long believed to be the ultimate speed limit in the universe, is creating a furor in scientific community and the public at large. Is one of the holy tenets of modern physics being threatened or is it the beginning of a new era in science? Most of all, what if the finding turns out to be true?

Researchers at CERN last week presented the astonishing conclusions of their experiments over the last three years, which found that neutrinos travel at speeds faster than light. The scientists had been shooting the neutrinos across a distance of 730 km from CERN in Switzerland to the Gran Sasso Laboratory in Italy for the last few years .The primary goal of this experiment was to identify the flavor-flipping nature of these particles, for which they are famously known.

However, the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) neutrino experiment found that the neutrinos arrived at their destination about 60 nano seconds (1 nano second is one billionth of a second) earlier than they should have, had they traveled at the speed of light. The speed of light still remains is one of the foundational one pillars of modern science, so the finding has the potential to be exceedingly disruptive.

Neutrinos are neutrally charged with near zero mass that rarely interact with matter, with billions of them passing through our body and trillions passing through the Earth every second. They are produced in various nuclear reactions, such as fusion which powers the sun. They should be governed by the rules of the special theory of relativity, so it shouldn’t be possible to accelerate them to the speed of light, let alone beyond that.

The violation of causality and the possibility of time travel are the two huge implications of traveling beyond the speed of light.

The speed limit of light is the basis of cause and effect: effects always follow causes. Our rational thinking dictates that this order must be followed. We do want to believe, for example, a bullet leaves the gun before hitting its target. This is obvious in every action and experiment that we observe or perform in nature. But, if the bullet hits the target before it leaves the gun, it would violate causality and would be stupifying. If this were to occur, the basic laws of physics may well have to be rewritten.

Our perception of reality is based on the fact that actions generate outcomes, not the other way around. We shape our destiny on this assumption. But, what if such a lavish free will, long taken for granted, is a mere illusion. Surprisingly, many new studies suggest that our actions are mere execution of a long-ago written script. The cause and effect sequence may be pleasing to our superficial mind, but it may have nothing to do with the true underpinnings that make us function in a unique way, which we believe is the result of our own actions.

Also, if particles can travel faster than light and interact with matter, it becomes possible to send information into the past. In other words, time travel into the past would be a possibility. This would destroy our sense of past, present and future.

It will, definitely, open up many uncomfortable paradoxes, which would be very disturbing to live with. Imagine, if you receive the information before it was even sent.

One possible explanation for the neutrinos greater-than-light speed, could be that neutrinos are able to access some unknown, hidden dimension of space, which physicists have been hypothesizing for a while. If these particles travel through such shortcuts they can beat the speed of light even without violating the special theory of relativity. That too would open new and exciting vistas in our understanding about the universe, where we are prisoners of the known dimensions in an unknown universe.

The CERN researchers understand well the profound implications of their discovery, should it hold up, opting to describe their finding as an “anomaly,” concluding: “Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results.”

The interpretation, should the finding hold up in replicated studies that will likely take years, are both exciting and chilling.

We may find out — yesterday. 

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Science | Technology | October 2011

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