Einstein's laws questioned as speed of light is broken again

 

An experiment showing it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light, and so confound a fundamental principle of theoretical physics, has passed its first serious test of validity.

Scientists have excluded one of the sources of error that could have led them to make a mistake when they announced in September that a beam of sub-atomic particles had travelled a fraction of a second faster than light.

They repeated the first experiment, in which they had fired pulses of neutrons from the Cern underground laboratory near Geneva through solid rock to subterranean particle detectors at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy about 750km (466 miles) away.

This time the length of the neutron pulses was shortened to eliminate one possible source of error.

Instead of the pulses lasting 10.5 millionths of a second, as in the original experiment, they were made about 3,000 times shorter, at just 3 billionths of a second.

This enabled experimenters to eliminate the possibility that they were getting confused over the start and end of each pulse – critical with measurements involving minute fractions of a second.

Like the earlier experiment, the test found the neutrons arrived at the Italian site some 60 billionths of a second faster than if they were travelling at light speed – some 186,282 miles per second and supposedly the maximum velocity at which anything can move.

Travelling faster than light is considered impossible under the current laws of physics. Breaking the universal constant would overturn Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity, which has held sway over theoretical physics for more than a century.

"A measurement so delicate and carrying a profound implication on physics requires an extraordinary level of scrutiny," said Professor Fernando Ferroni, president of the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics and a spokesman for the international Opera consortium, which carried out the test.

"The positive outcome of the test makes us more confident of its result, although a final word can only be said by analogous measurements performed elsewhere in the world. One of the eventual systematic errors is now out of the way, but the search is not over."

Physicists now await a repeat of the experiment by other researchers at the Minos group at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, before they tear up their textbooks – or eat their boxer shorts, as Prof Jim Al-Khalili at Surrey University vowed to do if the experiment proved correct.

"I am not yet ready to get out my knife and fork," he said. "The results have only dealt with some possible errors. There are still a number of other possible errors and uncertainties that they are working on ruling out.

"Ideally, the experiment would have to be done somewhere else entirely to try to verify the controversial result that these tiny particles really are going faster than light in case there is still a systemic problem with this particular experiment at Cern."

In Numbers

299,792,458

The speed of light, in metres per second – a universal constant in the laws of physics

730

Distance travelled (in km), by neutrinos in Cern experiment

60

Billionths of a second – how much faster than light the neutrinos travelled

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own