Faster than the speed of light?

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2012

So Scotty may have got it wrong, and unlike my assertion in last month’s Material Matters, apparently you can change the laws of physics. At least according to researchers at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, who recorded the arrival times of neutrinos sent from the CERN particle accelerator 730km away.

The findings suggested these ghostly sub-atomic particles had travelled through the earth 60 billionths of a second faster than the speed of light. If proved correct (given the tiny time and distance involved, there may be another explanation), it turns more than 100 years of quantum mechanics on its head. Quantum mechanics is the body of scientific principles that explains the behaviour of matter and its interactions with energy on the scale of atoms and atomic particles. Underpinning all this is Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which asserts that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Not only is this fundamental to our understanding of the universe and how it came to be, it is also sacrosanct to the principal of cause and effect – the window must break after the stone is thrown at it, not before. It also explains why it is impossible to travel back in time.

So what is the relevance of this to the real world of Euro crises, rising debt and economic austerity? One thing is for sure, it does not herald a breakthrough in time travel and the likelihood that we will be able to turn the clock back to prevent these problems arising in the first place. Communication and navigational satellites orbiting Earth already rely on extremely accurate time that has to be synchronised in accordance with Einstein’s original postulation that moving clocks run slower, ie satellites orbiting Earth have to be corrected to those on Earth that run faster. Quantum mechanics also led to the Big Bang theory of early expansion of the universe, which has become the generally accepted theory of how the planets, stars and galaxies came in to being – and where they are ultimately heading. Sadly the same cannot be said of the Euro. Perhaps the most interesting future development is in the area of so-called quantum computers. While still at a development stage, if successful these computers could perform at speeds vastly superior to conventional binary computers.

None of which Einstein could have imagined at the time he published his seminal work On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies in 1905, and in the same way, who knows what might come of this latest observation of quantum behaviour?

There is another, more prosaic, reason why I am excited by the Gran Sasso observations. They provide a good illustration of how the scientific community works – collaboration, sharing of results, constructive challenges and peer review. The assumption that hard-to-explain results might be wrong, rather than the presumption that they are fact, is everything that politics is not. Which makes me certain that it will be scientific discovery and engineering solutions that solve the world’s problems, not our politicians.