Scientists at the CERN physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, recently claimed to have detected a subatomic particle, called a neutrino, moving in excesss of light speed. If true, the discovery would break a central tenet of physics and invalidate some aspects of Albert Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. But physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, Illinois, also known as Fermilab, are not convinced.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity is elementary physics to scientist Patrick Fox. “I have been studying that for years. It is something you use day-to-day, ” Fox said. “And it basically boils down to the statement that physics should be independent of how fast you are moving.”
That includes traveling at the speed of light. “The only objects that can travel at the speed of light are massless things, like light, ” he said.
Scientist Robert Plunkett explains that the common wisdom about subatomic particles such as neutrinos is that they are able to travel to nearly light speed, but never beyond. “The speed of light is the absolute cosmic speed limit for the travel of particles, ” he said.
But European scientists claim that they have measured neutrino particles that have broken the “cosmic speed limit. ” If true, the finding will upend almost a hundred years of physical knowledge and require physicists to re-formulate the theories about matter, energy, and physical interactions.
But Plunkett says it is easy to make an error when trying to observe a particle as small as a neutrino. He suggests the MINOS facility, with an upgrade, will be able to produce a more accurate indication of the CERN results. However, if MINOS also measures a neutrino traveling beyond the speed of light, theorists like Patrick Fox will have their work cut out for them, designing the next foundation for physics research in the future.