The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Speed of light comes to a halt

Forget everything you know about the theory of relativity.

Well, maybe not everything. But if new findings reported last Thursday of particles surpassing the speed of light are proven true, Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory could be due for a re-examination.

Particles shot from European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) labs near Geneva, Switzerland to Gran Sasso, Italy, reportedly surpassed the speed of light by 60 billionths of a second. The experiment was part of OPERA, a project designed to test the oscillation of small particles called neutrinos.

CERN, one of the world’s leading scientific research organizations, is based in specializations with physics and using advanced technology. More than 20 European states have citizens working in the organization.

Objects moving at the speed of light, traditionally viewed as the ultimate, unsurpassable speed limit, would travel the 730 km in 2.4 thousandths of a second. The neutrinos took 60 nanoseconds shorter than that. A nanosecond is one one-billionth of a second.

Special relativity deals with, among other things, the relation between velocity, light and time. It has long been the framework for modern physics and crucial to understanding the nature of the universe.

Baha Balantekin, an expert in neutrino physics at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, said he and the physics community are very skeptical of the results, which could have far-reaching implications.

“This is an extraordinary claim,” Balantekin said in an e-mail. “It is analogous to climbing up the tower of Pisa, dropping a rock and watching (the) rock fly instead of dropping.”

Balantekin, a fellow of both the American Physical Society and the United Kingdom’s Institute of Physics, said he suspects an error will come to light when other physicists attempt the experiment.

According to the highly publicized CERN press release, the researchers are confident in their methods, but are open to others testing their findings.

“This result comes as a complete surprise,” spokesperson Antonio Ereditato of the University of Bern said in the press release. “After many months of studies and cross-checks we have not found any instrumental effect that could explain the result of the measurement. While OPERA researchers will continue their studies, we are also looking forward to independent measurements to fully assess the nature of this observation.”

Ereditato, who is stationed in Switzerland, did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

Marquette physics professor Andrew Kunz said he is not willing to jump to any conclusions regarding the fate of Einstein’s special relativity theory. He said that until now, special relativity has held up perfectly and works where it has been applied.

Kunz alluded to previous scientific breakthroughs and said the new information may not completely discredit the former understanding.

“Maybe there is something that special relativity can’t do and we need a new theory to explain that area,” Kunz said in an e-mail. “That new theory will ultimately have to incorporate special relativity and therefore Newtonian physics as well.”

Balantekin said the theory of special relativity likely has a secure place in physics and science and provides the framework for many modern devices, such as global positioning systems and electronic equipment.

Sergio Bertolucci, CERN research director, said in the press release he welcomed other scientists to challenge CERN’s results.

“If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to be sure that there are no other, more mundane, explanations. That will require independent measurements,” Bertolucci said.

Kunz, skeptical of the breakthrough, questioned why this had not been discovered sooner by other research facilities, like the northern Illinois laboratory Fermilab, where similar research has been conducted. The laboratory features particle accelerators comparable to those at CERN.

Kunz said if the findings are proven by repeated experimentation, he still does not see any practical applications for the discovery, at least not for the average person.

“CERN is a $5 billion dollar facility, and if that is what it takes to create this effect, then it seems unlikely to me that this will trickle down into everyday life,” Kunz said.

Story continues below advertisement
View Comments (1)

Comments (1)

All Marquette Wire Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • B

    BraheSep 27, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    That Kunz sounds like a bitter old man who has forgotten to look at the stars. Its always been a bad design of nature if we couldn’t go faster than the speed of light, so if we indeed are at that point in history where this is proven hurrah for that.
    As with all discoveries in history, at first the ordinary majority scoff and can’t see any point – a century later there are thousands of applications.