Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 8:10 pm

Not so bizarre after all

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 8:10 pm
Tags: , ,

So, the recent report that scientists had found particles traveling faster than the speed of light? The one that was going to blow up Einstein’s theory of relativity?

Maybe not so much, actually.

Oh, it’s not that the neutrinos in question weren’t traveling slightly faster than 186,200 miles per second. They might have been. It’s just that that might not actually be the top speed of light, depending on what light is going through.

In a Q&A with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marvin L. Marshak, a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, breaks it down:

Q. Could Einstein and his immensely famous ratio, E=mc2, really be wrong?

A. I’ve convinced myself that this could actually be real. If it’s real, I don’t think it overthrows relativity completely. It could be basically telling us that the constant that Einstein proposed—namely, the speed of light—is not actually the right constant. In other words, when light goes through material, it slows down, and so it could be that what we think is a vacuum is not actually empty. And that’s not that shocking, because for the last 10 years or so we’ve been talking about dark energy. We’ve been talking even longer than 10 years about the Higgs field. So the possibility is that a vacuum is not empty, and therefore, just like light going through glass, light is slowed down relative to neutrinos, which don’t have electromagnetic interactions, and therefore could possibly go a little faster.

Q. But there’s still some ultimate speed limit at which matter converts into energy?

A. Right. There’s still some point. And in any event, for us here, the exciting thing is that we have the only other experiment that could really check this result, and that’s the neutrino beam that goes from Fermilab to northern Minnesota. This is an existing experiment that actually published a result four years ago on this topic, but not with sufficient accuracy to detect the effect at the level that the people at CERN are claiming exists. So now our plan is to improve our timing and go back and look at this with a different setup.

Q. So what does this mean for Einstein and relativity?

A. I don’t want to minimize the impact on physics of this, but personally, I think it could fit into Einstein’s basic framework with some relatively small modifications. What the implications of those modifications are, that would be still significant.

So: significant, but not quite “What if everything you thought you knew was wrong?” significant.

 

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