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Sep 23 2011

Faster-than-light neutrinos?

I came across this BBC report about some observations at CERN that suggested that neutrinos may be traveling faster than the speed of light. If this is true, it would mean that one of the pillars of modern science, the theory of special relativity, would have to undergo serious scrutiny.

I personally was not too excited by the news and was not even planning to comment on it but it seems to be causing a media sensation and several blog readers sent me clippings from various sources and asked for my opinion, so here it is.

I think that this result is unlikely to hold up and so am not too excited. The reason that I am underwhelmed is that I have been around long enough to recall many previous sightings of tachyons (the technical term for faster-than-light particles) that turned out to be false alarms. They are like Elvis sightings in that there is an initial flurry of excitement that then fades under closer scrutiny. The scientists who reported the recent events are aware of this history and are understandably cautious about making any grandiose claims. They can depend on the media to do that. If other research groups study this is some detail and the results hold up, then there will be cause for excitement. This will likely take a couple of years. Until then, I treat this with considerable skepticism.

So my present attitude is captured in this xkcd cartoon that I saw via Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write.

Sorry to be such a downer but if the history of science teaches us anything it is that the great and enduring theories of physics are never overthrown on the basis of a single experiment.

3 comments

  1. 1
    P Smith

    Even money says there is another source closer to the target, or another constantly radiating source that happened to hit the target at that time.

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    Mano, While I agree with your general comments, I commend the researchers for having said that they have done everything they can to find a/the mistake and now request the rest of the scientific community to join the hunt. Remaining skeptical is fine, but I sense a certain cynicism and even arrogance which, I don’t think is called for. I have found your blogs interesting, informative and have got me interested in many topics, which have been of great value and enjoyment. The one criticism I have though, is that the blogs convey a sense of superiority, which I definitely know is not intended.

  3. 3
    Mike Haubrich

    As a non-physicist, I am interested to see what happens if the experiment holds up. Perhaps, rather than “overthrowing special relativity” it will yield a separate new insight about particle physics that had not been expected. I have no idea what that might be, of course, but it will be interesting to watch.

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