Neutrino Faster Than Light…Maybe

Albert Einstein. AP Photo

Did Einstein get something wrong?

His theory of relativity — which has proved remarkably durable since he first proposed it in 1905 — said that the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) had to be something of a cosmic speed limit. But now a team of scientists at CERN, the giant particle accelerator physicists use in the Alps on the French-Swiss border, say they have conducted an experiment in which neutrinos — subatomic particles with no electric charge — traveled slightly faster than photons, the particles that make up light beams.

If they’re right, it’s a big deal in the physics world — but that’s a big if.

“The feeling that most people have is this can’t be right, this can’t be real,” said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN. Physicists will now be poring over the report of the experiment, many of them saying they’re fascinated by the findings, but also inclined to be skeptical. (If you’re into such things, the abstract of the experiment is HERE.)

“We’d be thrilled if it’s right because we love something that shakes the foundation of what we believe,” said Columbia University physicist Brian Greene. “That’s what we live for.”

Other accelerators, particularly Fermilab outside Chicago, will be pressed into service to see if they can be made to replicate — or refute — the European results.

The neutrino was only proposed in 1930 as a mathematical construct to explain the behavior of other subatomic particles. Scientists say vast numbers of them (probably traveling at the speed of light) harmlessly pass through matter — including your body — all the time. Vast detectors, usually giant containers of pure water deep in underground mines, were set up to try to detect neutrinos. They were finally spotted in 1956. Not until the last decade was anyone even able to demonstrate that they have mass.

And now they’ve traveled faster than light? Scientists say it does not change our lives in any direct way — at least not yet — but they say it does stretch the mind.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.