Who would have thought that the biggest talking point and game changer of this decade was going to be a measly sub particle called the “neutrino”, which most people, even the science community, know next to nothing about. The last few weeks have shown that just as revolutions can occur in countries around the world, so too is it possible that intellectual revolutions of sorts can take place in laboratories underground.
So let me bring you up to “speed” (excuse the pun) with what has occurred recently. Scientists at CERN, the particle accelerator facility in Switzerland, found that on sending neutrinos from Switzerland to Italy, they reached there in a time scale of about 60 nanoseconds (a billionth of a second) faster than they should have. This is theoretically impossible, given that the ultimate known cosmic speed is that of the speed of light, which is around 300 million meters per second, or 186, 000 miles per second.
What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Well, nothing at all really. The only slight thing would be that it would contravene the maximum theoretical speed limit found by Einstein, proving the theories of relativity which we have followed for the best part of a century, as redundant, or at best, requiring slight modifications. Suffice to say that this has not been done yet, and no one has been able to challenge Einstein’s theories so far.
Such theories have served us tremendously, allowing us, amongst other things, the GPS system and the CRT in TV’s. This would not have been possible had we not taken relativistic effects into account. This result alone would also bring into question most other areas of modern day physics.
Firstly, it must be said that even though this is the second time these results have cropped up, they have not been entirely verified yet. Even if it does happen again in Switzerland, the tests would still have to be repeated, and the results corroborated, in places like Japan and the US before any meaningful implications can be drawn.
But before we jump to any weird and fanciful conclusions, let’s look at some of the seriously bizarre implications it would have for our understanding of causality itself. If the results are to be taken to be accurate, then this would automatically imply that the effects of events can take place before the event has actually occurred, i.e. the effect would precede the cause, and that in this very instance, the neutrinos were actually travelling back in time – something that would seem counter intuitive and illogical.
This automatically creates a paradox, as particles traveling close to the speed of light would require infinite energy, hence, setting up the idea for time travel to be possible. It also has to be said that faster than light travel (FLT) has not been proven to be impossible from a mathematical point of view, and usually requires hypotheses like the distortion of space-time, and existence of multiple dimensions, far more than the four-dimensions known to us.
So you should now see why this result would appear to be all the more important to verify, and why the eminent physicist and popular scientist, Professor Jim Al Khalili, has called for patience and restraint until we get to the bottom of things.
There is no doubt that if they are found to be accurate, and that’s a big IF, then obviously that would have serious ramifications for our understanding of the universe and how it operates. It would bring into question our current knowledge of reality as we know it, and send us back to the scientific drawing board – again, and this would make it one of the most profoundly important discovery of at least the last century, if not more, as Professor Brian Cox has said on the BBC.
Remember, this is not the first time that we have had to question our previously held notions. This is the very definition of science and the quest for knowledge within it. It is not a dogmatic discipline in which we stick to principles even when studies have proven otherwise. Many would say that this in essence is the very difference between science and religion.
Remember when many centuries ago, Galileo’s telescope vindicated the Copernican idea of heliocentrism, earning him the epithet “the father of modern science”, despite the immediate ramifications it had of him falling out of favour with the ruling Church. He is the one we still remember with reverence. His battle with the politicians of his day, is the very fight of, and for, science. In refusing to accept previously held notions without proof, he managed to bring about the existence of the scientific method, one based on inductive reasoning and logic.
Also Thomas Kuhn, the American historian and philosopher of science, who coined the famous phraseology, “paradigm shifts” in reference to competing theories of scientific knowledge ‘outdoing’ each other, as in the famous case of Einsteinium physics superseding Newtonian mechanics on the larger scale, proves that we shouldn’t be afraid of moving to newer paradigms, if that is indeed what is happening here now.
The only thing needed now for CERN to overshadow the rest of the gloomy news that pervades our airwaves and to get the rest of the population forgetting about who’ll be winning X-Factor this Saturday, would be also to claim that the so-called Higgs particle (God particle), for which the $9 billion LHC experiment was initially set up to find, doesn’t exist at all. Given that this was the main objective of one of the costliest scientific experiments of our age, this will be a shocking discovery.
CERN’s main goal was to address some of the most pertinent fundamental questions of our age and to check whether some of our best theoretical ideas about it are indeed correct. So if anything, even merely verifying whether the speed of light can be surpassed or not, would still be a major achievement in helping to advance our understanding of some of the fundamental laws of nature itself, providing further insight into some of the deepest philosophical questions about the world we inhabit.
Photo Credits: Image from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/sep/22/faster-than-light-particles-neutrinos
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