Physicists on the team that measured particles travelling faster than light said on Friday they were as surprised as their sceptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them.
Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world’s foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein.
“To our great surprise we found an anomaly,” said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team.
An anomaly is a mild way of putting it.
Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light — 299,792 km per second — has long been considered a cosmic speed limit.
The team, collaboration between France’s National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory fired a neutrino beam 730 km underground from Geneva to Italy.
They found it travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than light. That’s sixty billionth of a second, a time no human brain could register.
“You could say it’s peanuts, but it’s not. It’s something that we can measure rather accurately with a small uncertainty,” Mr. Ereditato told The Associated Press.
If the experiment is independently repeated most likely by teams in the United States or Japan then it would require a fundamental rethink of modern physics.
“Everybody knows that the speed limit is c, the speed of light. And if you find some matter particle such as the neutrino going faster than light, this is something which immediately shocks everybody, including us,” said Mr. Ereditato, a researcher at the University of Bern, Switzerland.
Physicists not involved in the experiment have been understandably sceptical.
Alvaro De Rujula, a theoretical physicist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research outside Geneva from where the neutron beam was fired, said he blamed the readings on a so far undetected human error.
If not, and it’s a big if, the door would be opened to some wild possibilities.
The average person, said Mr. De Rujula, “could, in principle, travel to the past and kill their mother before they were born.”
But Mr. Ereditato and his team are wary of letting such science fiction story lines keep them up at night.
“We will continue our studies and we will wait patiently for the confirmation,” he told the AP. “Everybody is free to do what they want — to think, to claim, to dream.”
He added: “I’m not going to tell you my dreams.”