Breaking the Light Speed Barrier

This is a blog about skepticism, so it's about time we address something to be skeptical about.

A story that's been in the media lately has gotten a lot of attention in geeky web forums everywhere.  Science fans everywhere are excited about a recent experiment, collaborated between OPERA and CERN, where a few thousand neutrinos have been caught breaking the universal speed limit.  Until recently, it was generally thought that nothing could exceed the speed of light in a vacuum.

The truth is, as far as scientists are concerned, that is still the case.

One thing to remember is that this occurrence is the first and only experiment where this has happened.  It usually takes much more than one experiment to change a scientific theory.  In fact, Antonio Ereditato, a physicist and spokesperson involved in the experiment clearly points this out, saying it takes more than one experiment to prove an extraordinary claim.

Whew!  Something smells credulous.
There are many more factors why the experiment could have been inaccurate than there are factors that could disprove our current understanding of relativity.  For example, there could be a mis-calibration somewhere in the equipment.  Since the facilities at OPERA and CERN are the just barely the only ones to experiment with these particles with this level of accuracy, it might be a while before we see another experiment to challenge or support this recent discovery.  There are other labs that are already seeking to challenge the accuracy of the experiment, including Fermilab, MINOS, and an international collaboration at the J-PARC facility in Japan called the T2K experiment.

Another factor is that the tests between OPERA and CERN, in layman's terms, basically involves shooting particles from Switzerland to Italy, through tons of metal and rock.  It's been argued that the oft-quoted value of C is actually the known speed of light traveling in a vacuum.  So one possibility, as I see it (remembering that I'm no scientist) is that it wasn't that neutrinos broke the speed limit, but that the light in the experiment was "slowed down".  Perhaps some physicist out there would like to correct any misunderstandings I might have on the subject?

No comments:

Post a Comment