The really, really fast show that has blown physics apart

A 450-mile journey lasting less than 2.4 thousandths of a second has, we are told, disproved Einstein's theory of special relativity. Tom Peck seeks expert guidance in an attempt to understand what this actually means

It was slightly alarming to wake up yesterday to discover that everything you thought you understood about time and space could be wrong.

But how many of us who read about the experiment in Switzerland involving impossibly fast particles called neutrinos knew what on earth these scientists had done – or what it meant? To find out, I called Jeff Forshaw, a professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester.

So, Jeff, why is this such a big deal?

If it were true, then it overturns Einstein's special theory of relativity, and in an interesting way. In Einstein's theory the speed of light is special. It is a cosmic speed limit. If something goes faster than the speed of light, then you've got the possibility of time travel.

What have these scientists done?

It's very simple. They've fired a beam of particles called neutrinos from a gun in Geneva which have smashed into an underground brick wall in Gran Sasso, 730km away. They've measured how far it is. They've measured how long it's taken, and it would appear to have travelled faster than the speed of light. They fire it out of a high-intensity proton source that produces a beam of neutrinos and smashes into a ton of bricks made out of photographic emulsion. It's very very hard to stop neutrinos. If you want to detect one you have to stop it. Make it interact with something.

How have they managed to fire it, catch it 730kms away, and measure its speed so accurately?

These are the things that they'll be nervous about. By my calculation, the neutrino would win the race by 18 metres, and a time of 60 nanoseconds. So they must know the distance between Cern and Gran Sasso to much better than 18 metres, and they must measure the time to much better then 60 nanoseconds.

I don't know exactly how they've done that. Of course there hasn't been an actual race. You would have to bore a hole all the way for the light beam to travel through. The neutrinos however can travel through the rock.

What exactly is this thing that's gone faster than the speed of light?

Neutrinos. They are tiny, very light particles that are produced very abundantly in the centre of the sun, although these ones weren't. They have a very tiny mass. The Nobel Prize for physics a few years ago was given to the person who proved their mass wasn't zero. It is much lighter even than the electron. They are a necessary by-product of the process which generates energy in the sun.

So why didn't Einstein know about these neutrinos?

In Einstein's time, in the early 20th century, understanding of elementary particles was rudimentary.

So what would he make of all this?

I don't think he'd be so arrogant as to think his ideas were set in stone. We do have a problem with relativity theory and gravity, for example. Everything's not done-and-dusted in theoretical physics, though you'd have been hard-pressed to find anybody who thought this experiment would have disproved it all.

So why can't something go faster than the speed of light?

Because it would violate the laws of cause and effect. Something could go back in time and witness the moment of its own creation.

But these neutrinos have only gone a little bit faster than the speed of light. Wouldn't you have to go a lot faster to do that?

No, not strictly, no. It would take a long time to get there, because you're only going that little bit faster. You might well die of old age before you did. But the idea is that, as soon as you start travelling faster than the speed of light, you are moving through time.

The idea that you could get into a rocket and go back in time is a long way off: it is merely the theoretical possibility that there is something that can move faster than it. We don't really have any option but to accept that this is not possible. It's sewn in to the theory of the universe. If special relativity is true and something can travel faster than the speed of light, then you can go back in time.

Does it make time travel possible?

Well it makes it possible for those neutrinos. They are the most elusive particles in the universe. The fact that there is something in space time that has this feature is enough to upset the theory.

Are there any practical implications?

Well not now, but if it is true, then the law of cause and effect is no longer sacrosanct. If you insist that cause and effect must be true, then Einstein's theory of space and time is wrong. The idea that anything can go back and violate the law of cause and effect is so repugnant to scientists that they would have to ditch Einstein's theory and find something else that makes it sacrosanct again.

Einstein completely overturned Newton's ideas. This discovery, if true, would be to Einstein's theory of relativity what Einstein's theory was to Newton.

Do you think the scientists have got this right?

I don't know. I honestly don't know. When I listen to science stories, when really interesting things come up, they get out in to the media. I bet these scientists would have liked to have been able to sit on it until they'd got independent verification. Lots of things like this happen and don't turn out to be true. There are many more false alarms than truths.

They've got to know this distance to an absurd accuracy. Measure the neutrinos' speed to a ridiculous accuracy.

Even if you've got a brilliant team working really hard, which I'm sure they have, you still can't know. If the experiment turns out not to be true it'll be interesting to see what they did wrong.

People will be sceptical until it has been independently verified, which you can only do by using some completely different piece of apparatus, a completely different experiment, to get the same result.

So could someone actually go and kill their grandmother?

Well, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson said a very good argument against the possibility of time travel is that we've never met any time travellers. If someone in the future had done it, someone would have come back.

Back to the drawing-board: How top physicists see it

Dr David Whitehouse

Author and astronomer

If this is true it will be a revolution. It rewrites the whole basement rules of physics and opens the door to time machines and faster-than-light travel, things that weren't possible under Einstein. Science does not respect feelings or emotions, and there are scientists who have spent their whole lives studying Einstein, who may have to come to terms with the fact that he was wrong.

Professor Andy Parker

Professor of High Energy Physics, Cambridge University

In science we are always looking for things that go against the rules we have set, so in that sense I am very happy to get something we don't expect, but you would normally have an alternative hypothesis for it to fit into and in this case there doesn't seem to be one.

That is not to say it is wrong, but it is why it is so startling.

Professor Dan Tovey

Professor of Particle Physics, University of Sheffield

It is difficult to think of results in physics in recent years that could claim to be of such fundamental significance. The implications could be very exciting, but my suspicion – and I assume that of much of the scientific community – is that they have missed something and that is causing the effect. To have acceptance of something like this could take a very long time – to refute it could take very little time indeed!

Dr Lucie Green

Research Fellow working at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory

I like the way it exposes how science is carried out and the fact that experimentation is difficult. I am not sure it is going to be such a massive game changer. I hope that isn't what is going to happen, because if we have to start again it would be really difficult!

Interviews by Chris Stevenson

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
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

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering