So, we’ve apparently broken the unbreakable: the speed of light.
Last month, researchers in Geneva, Switzerland, working in conjunction with CERN, shot some neutrinos 730 km (454 miles) all the way to Gran Sasso, Italy. Those neutrinos arrived at their destination a shocking 60 nanoseconds before they were expected to.
60 nanoseconds sooner than light would have.
However, don’t start drawing up plans for your new time machine just yet.
Quick, get some duct tape!
The majority of physicists are skeptical of these results. There are just too many variables at play here, and even though the scientists working on the OPERA project were no doubt meticulous and very serious about their work, there is always ample room for error.
Even the project leaders themselves are skeptical. In the same breath as announcing their findings, they asked their fellow physicists to attempt to replicate their results and prove them wrong (which, granted, is a fairly standard feature of the scientific method).
But even if neutrinos can travel faster than light, what does that mean for us? While it may change a fundamental aspect of how scientists view the universe, would it be as groundbreaking as it seems?
The short answer is yes, it would be groundbreaking.
For so long we’ve held the steadfast belief that light was a “cosmic constant,” that nothing could travel faster, or else the laws of physics would bend in every which way: According to Einstein’s theories, any object traveling faster than the speed of light would find itself traveling into the past.
The slightly longer answer is that, while these findings, if true, would naturally impact our understanding of the universe, and cause a re-analysis of Einstein’s theories of relativity, that doesn’t mean his theories would become completely obsolete (despite what some may think).
Einstein’s theories have worked great so far, one prime example being our use of GPS navigation and satellites — without relativity, we wouldn’t be able to calculate the very real time dilation effects that occur between those satellites and Earth.
Just because a few neutrinos might toss the greater fate of relativity into the air, that doesn’t mean everything we’ve accomplished using our current physics model will just disappear.
So, in general, at least for the time being, our everyday world would remain the same.
However, these results do open up new questions, not the least of which being: If a neutrino could travel faster than the speed of light, could we?
You’re telling me you built a time machine…out of a neutrino?!
Life isn’t so easy. Even with all the weird, garbled nonsense that happens at the quantum, we here in the more “macro” world at least appear to follow a certain sense of order.
There’s a big difference between us — atomically-composed human beings of mass — and particles of near-zero mass such as neutrinos.
Take a human being and accelerate him beyond the speed of light and, while he may end up being the world’s first time traveler, he’ll also probably be able to fit into an empty can of SpaghettiOs.
He’d be dead. And a mess. Theoretically.
However, if we could travel beyond the speed of light without accelerating too quickly, then maybe it’d be possible (so, we’d probably be looking at something like a Tipler Cylinder, located in space as a launching point).
Or perhaps we’ll some day be able to manipulate gravitational fields, with which we could control speed without even “moving,” a sort of “gravity assist” through time.
That’s all assuming neutrinos can travel faster than light, of course, and that the data isn’t due to erroneous measurements.
At the moment, physicists around the world, including those at Fermilab, are preparing to put these results to task, so we’ll know soon enough whether or not the speed of light remains the speed limit of the universe.