‘Faster than light’ team just as surprised as sceptics

PHYSICISTS on the team that measured particles travelling faster than light said yesterday they were as surprised as their sceptics about the results — which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.

Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.

“To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity.

The speed of light — 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometres per second) — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.

“The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research from where the neutron beam was fired.

The team — a collaboration between France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory — fired a neutrino beam 730km underground from Geneva to Italy.

They found it travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than light. That’s sixty billionth of a second, a time no human brain could register.

“You could say it’s peanuts, but it’s not. It’s something that we can measure rather accurately with a small uncertainty,” Ereditato said.

If the experiment is independently repeated — most likely by teams in the US or Japan — it would require a fundamental rethink of physics.

“Everybody knows that the speed limit is c, the speed of light. And if you find some matter particle such as the neutrino going faster than light, this is something which immediately shocks everybody, including us,” said Ereditato.

Physicists not involved in the experiment have been understandably sceptical.

Alvaro De Rujula, a theoretical physicist at CERN, said he blamed the readings on a so-far undetected human error.

If not, and it’s a big if, the door would be opened to some wild possibilities.

The average person, said De Rujula, “could, in principle, travel to the past and kill their mother before they were born”.

But Ereditato and his team are wary of letting such science fiction story lines keep them up at night.

“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” he said.

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