Don’t Tear Your Einstein Posters Down Quite Yet
The Physics world has received quite a bit of attention these past few days after scientists at CERN have apparently detected that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light. At the LHC, pictured above, particles called neutrinos are created. Neutrinos can be thought of as very anti-social particles when it comes to matter, and pass directly through them- with trillions of these particles passing through every inch of your body each second. So these scientists detected neutrinos after traveling hundreds of kilometeres to a detector called OPERA - and they found something shocking. It seems, by dividing the particle’s distance traveled and the time it took to get there, that the neutrinos reached the detector before light would have. A similar beam of photons, which compose light, reached the detector in 2.43 milliseconds - but the neutrinos were apparently 60 nanoseconds faster!
But I’m not trashing my Einstein t-shirts yet. This is a fantastic claim, and should be received with a ton of skepticism. Even the scientists themselves are not causing the madness that the media is, they have remained calm and want their results to be peer-reviewed and tried again and again. The likely occurrence is a statistical error; a number of small errors added together in the right conditions caused the scientists to measure such a speed.
The scientists used a GPS to measure the distance traveled, which could be off by even a fraction of a fraction of a meter. Additionally, it is very difficult to determine exactly where and when neutrinos are created; so an error in that could cause a speed under-calculation. Neutrinos are tricky little buggers, and are extremely hard to measure since they hardly interact with matter.
Bad Astronomy made an excellent point concerning the supernova 1987A. That supernova itself occurred when the core of a very massive star collapsed; and the outer layers were destroyed. Although the star was 160,000 light years away, it released an incredibly intense stream of neutrinos that we could easily detect. If we apply a similar speed to the neutrinos in this case as has apparently been found in CERN; we find that we should have detected the stream of neutrinos four years earlier than the light! Since OPERA claims that the neutrinos traveled 730 km in a slightly faster time than 2.43 milliseconds, neutrinos would travel 160,000 lights years four years faster than light would. However, we detected the light and neutrinos at a very similar time; if you account for the time it took for the star to actually collapse the times line up exactly.
Although finds like this can be exciting; don’t run away with your imagination quite yet. While the possibility is fascinating, even the scientists who actually performed the experiment are not quite sure yet. Just wait patiently, more information is being found as quickly as possible.