Warp speed: Physics world gets competitive as Swiss experiment surpasses light speed

Ashley Cullins Contributor
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Most teachers would frown on students using cell phones in class, but Middle Tennessee State University physics professor William Robertson is glad one of his pupils was reading about a potentially ground-shifting scientific development instead of listening to his lectures.

That student was the first to brief Robertson on a paper released September 23 whose authors, based at the famed CERN laboratory in Switzerland, claim they observed subatomic particles called neutrinos moving faster than the speed of light.

If they’re right, it will mean lights out for Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

Robertson’s students were hopeful Einstein was wrong: It would mean a whole new world for them to explore.

Making Einstein obsolete may seem like something out of science fiction, but Einstein did the same thing to scientists who came before him — including Sir Isaac Newton.

But, then again, this could be just the latest scientific false alarm.

Like the CERN neutrino discovery, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed the discovery of a lifetime in 1989: cold fusion. But when no other scientists were able to replicate their results, the heat surrounding their supposed fusion success cooled.

But rather than trumpeting their achievement, Robertson said it seems Pasquale Migliozzi and his CERN neutrino-hunting team want to be proven wrong.

“They’re almost saying ‘we must have done something wrong, because we can’t believe this,’” Robertson told The Daily Caller. “They’ve had a lot of really smart people looking at this and they can’t figure out what’s wrong with their experiment.”

Aephraim Steinberg, physics professor at the University of Toronto, agreed. “They spent a lot of time double-checking before they released it,” he said. “People are pointing to this as a textbook example of how science should be done.”

This isn’t the first time someone has tried to break Einstein’s universal speed limit.

In 2007 Robertson conducted an experiment in which sound waves moved faster than light speed, but said it didn’t disprove Einstein’s theory. “What I did was within the guidelines of relativity,” he told TheDC.

Robertson added that waves don’t have any mass, and this is why the CERN experiment is different. “The big deal with it is that neutrinos have mass,” he said. “Mass changes the whole situation.”

The same year, German scientists claimed to break light speed using photons and prisms. Steinberg dissented at the time, saying it was a matter of interpretation.

He explained that the photon experiment differed from this one because it was predicted using the very laws it claimed to break. “The photon tunnel could not have been in conflict with relativity,” Steinberg said. “It was predicted using a theory that worked with relativity.”

Both scientists doubt the current would-be miracle will prove Einstein wrong, but neither would call it impossible.

“Everyone can tell pretty quickly that these are serious people who have done serious analysis,” Steinberg said. “It’s obvious to everyone that it’s a sound piece of work.”

Steinberg said his opinion is based on probability rather than the experiment itself. In other words, it is just too unlikely for the theory of relativity to be wrong.

Robertson is doubtful but curious. “I’m 95 percent sure they’ve done something wrong, but it’s fascinating that they can’t figure out what’s wrong,” he said.

And that mystery within a mystery has started a contest of a different kind, among scientists racing “to poke the hole in the experiment,” Robertson said.

“If you’re in a race to do something, and you know the person who does it second is going to get no credit at all, then you simply want to be first,” Steinberg added.

In a field where earth-shattering, time-bending discoveries are few and far between, competition is fierce but friendly — and always focused on moving science forward.

Until funding comes into play, that is. Then the lab coats come off.

“When money becomes involved, it gets a little more cutthroat and people don’t share information, and that process skews the science,” Robertson cautioned. “If your group gets results the others don’t, it might mean your folks have a job five years down the road and the others don’t.”