Breaking the Speed of Light Update

Yesterday, I posted a story about the possibility that researchers at CERN may have recorded neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light. I was one of many people who were/are excited about the possibility of faster than light (FTL) travel not only because I’m a science fiction fan, but also because this is a truly revolutionary finding, if it is true. As in we’d have to redefine physics as we know it.

So now that everyone has had time to calm down and get a good night’s sleep, let’s take another look. To begin with, CERN’s findings are now online, ready to be examined by scientists around the world and replicated by other labs. This is just as they should be–this is good science.

So what are some possible explanations for CERN’s findings? One of my go-to places to check for information on such things is Phil Plait’s (@badastronomer) blog. Phil did not disappoint. His post summarizes things very nicely. First, he writes a bit about how neutrinos behave. In 1987, scientists were able to measure a supernova. Neutrinos arrived only hours before the light from the supernova–this is NOT because neturinos moved FTL, but because they are released almost immediately, while photons take longer to be ejected. But had the neutrinos been moving at the speeds measured by CERN, the neutrinos would have arrived years before the light. No such neutrinos were recorded. Second, Phil examines the various errors that might have occurred, such as measuring the distance actually traveled, the moment of the neutrinos creation, and GPS calibration errors.

But as Phil says, the folks at CERN are not amateurs. I would think they would have found measurement errors by now (or even the possibility of them). Nevertheless, I still think this is the most likely culprit. But a post by New Scientist (@newscientist) offers an even more intriguing solution: what if the neutrinos skipped between dimensions, effectively reducing the distance between the measured start and finish points? This would mean the speed of light is still a hard speed limit, but would kick off a host of experiments about multiple dimensions.

As I said above, the claim of FTL neutrinos is extraordinary. As such, it will require extraordinary evidence to back it up. Most likely, the neutrinos were not moving FTL, so keep your space suits packed away. Let’s sit back and wait for the data to be examined, crunched, and re-crunched. Let’s wait for the experiments to be replicated again and again.

But it’s ok to hope for a little sci fi magic too. Part of me still is.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Speed of Light Update”

  1. For the record, Star Trek’s warp drive was always based on the idea not that the Enterprise was actually moving faster than light, but that they could essentially slip into a different dimension of space-time (“subspace”) to get places faster.

  2. (Pushes glasses up and sniffles) Actually, warp speed is really about warping the space around the ship. The engines created a pocket (or warp field) around the ship, then space collapsed around them. No extra dimensions required(1). Although dilithium crystals are fictional, the concept is theoretically possible: http://boingboing.net/2011/03/29/warp-drive-in-real-l.html /nerdfight

    (1) See, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warp_drive_(Star_Trek) (Yes, I could be wrong, as could Wikipedia)