Roll over Einstein: Pillar of physics challenged

By Seth Borenstein

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 23 2011 1:50 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 30, 2010 file photo, the globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists at CERN, the world's largest physics lab, say they have clocked subatomic particles, called neutrinos, traveling faster than light, a feat that, if true, would break a fundamental pillar of science, the idea that nothing is supposed to move faster than light, at least according to Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity: The famous E (equals) mc2 equation. That stands for energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. The readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.

Anja Niedringhaus, Associated Press

GENEVA — A startling find at one of the world's foremost laboratories that a subatomic particle seemed to move faster than the speed of light has scientists around the world rethinking Albert Einstein and one of the foundations of physics.

Now they are planning to put the finding — and by extension Einstein — to further high-speed tests to see if a revolutionary shift in explaining the workings of the universe is needed — or if the European scientists made a mistake.

Researchers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, who announced the discovery Thursday are still somewhat surprised themselves and planned to detail their findings on Friday.

If these results are confirmed, they won't change at all the way we live or the way the universe behaves. After all, these particles have presumably been speed demons for billions of years. But the finding will fundamentally change our understanding of how the world works, physicists said.

Only two labs elsewhere in the world can try to replicate the results. One is Fermilab outside Chicago and the other is a Japanese lab put on hold by the tsunami and earthquake. Fermilab officials met Thursday about verifying the European study and said their particle beam is already up and running. The only trouble is that the measuring systems aren't nearly as precise as the Europeans' and won't be upgraded for a while, said Fermilab scientist Rob Plunkett.

"This thing is so important many of the normal scientific rivalries fall by the wayside," said Plunkett, a spokesman for the Fermilab team's experiments. "Everybody is going to be looking at every piece of information."

Plunkett said he is keeping an open mind on whether Einstein's theories need an update, but he added: "It's dangerous to lay odds against Einstein. Einstein has been tested repeatedly over and over again."

Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen according to Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity — the one made famous by the equation E equals mc2. Light's 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) has long been considered the cosmic speed limit. And breaking it is a big deal, not something you shrug off like a traffic ticket.

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

The claim is being greeted with skepticism inside and outside the European lab.

"The feeling that most people have is this can't be right, this can't be real," said James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN, which provided the particle accelerator to send neutrinos on their breakneck 454-mile trip underground from Geneva to Italy. France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research collaborated with Italy's Ran Sass National Laboratory for the experiment, which has no connection to the Large Harden Collider located at CERN.

Gillies told The Associated Press that the readings have so astounded researchers that "they are inviting the broader physics community to look at what they've done and really scrutinize it in great detail."

That will be necessary, because Einstein's special relativity theory underlies "pretty much everything in modern physics," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment. "It has worked perfectly up until now." And part of that theory is that nothing is faster than the speed of light.

CERN reported that a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant.

Given the enormous implications of the find, they spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there were no flaws in the experiment.

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