The Speed of Science: Faster than light particle discovered… maybe

By Corey Conley

If you browsed the online world last month, you might have caught a blurb or two about the possible discovery of a faster-than-light particle by researchers. At first glance, it seemed like just another story about a scientific curiosity of little interest to non-scientists. However, this discovery is far different than your usual headline-making research about extra-solar planets or endangered species – it provides a rare opportunity to see what happens when the world of science is rendered topsy-turvy by a new finding.

First, a little background: Einstein, one of the founding fathers of modern physics, postulated the theory of special relativity. Without getting bogged down in detail, just know it is a time-tested cornerstone of modern physics. One of the key tenets of this theory is that nothing, absolutely nothing, can go faster than light.

So when researchers at Gran Sasso lab sent neutrinos – prolific subatomic particles that stream, by the trillions, through you every second – through the Earth, they were more than a bit surprised. The particles arrived at their destination faster than anything ever recorded – including light.

Obviously, something was very wrong with their equipment. They recalibrated and double, then triple, then quadruple-checked every juncture that could have produced the error. After three years, timing the journey of about 15,000 neutrinos as they travel 450 miles through the Earth, they could find no flaw in their measurements. Einstein, at least according to their measurements, was wrong.

The absoluteness of the light barrier cannot be overstated. An FTL particle raises interesting, science-fiction worthy, possibilities. A FTL particle could arrive before it was sent, or carry information back in time, blurring formerly clear-cut lines of what is and is not allowed in the physical universe.

The results created an ongoing firestorm that leaked into the mainstream media, but within the scientific community, something beautiful happened: science’s self-correcting mechanisms began digesting on the biggest challenge to established theory since Einstein himself. The brightest minds in physics broke apart each step, suggesting improvements and corrections.

The Gran Sasso lab used these suggestions to refine their research, and on October 28 began another round of experiments to confirm, or falsify, their original findings.

No doubt, there were many scientists who held fast – no pun intended – to the immutability of relativity, and refused to entertain the possibility that what they believed in was wrong. Others expressed the mixture of caution and curiosity expressed by Columbia University Physicist Brian Green when he stated, “We’d [scientists] be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe. That’s what we live for,” in a public response to the findings.

That attitude in the face of a potentially universe-shaking finding represents the best of science The Gran Sasso researchers will spend the next few years having their every scientific mood published and scrutinized for the world to see. Every occasion to fail, every potential mistake will be analyzed by the brightest minds in the field because the stakes – the future of fundamental physics theory – is huge.

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