Fast Little Neutrino: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity Challenged By Test Showing Particle Traveling Faster Than Speed of Light

It turns out that Einstein was a bit slow after all. Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) has made a subatomic particle go faster than the speed of light for the first time — something that shattered one assumption of Einstein’s theories. The scientists used neutrinos, which were observed smashing past the cosmic speed barrier of 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second).

The scientists fired a neutrino beam 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.

According to Einstein’s special theory of relativity – the E=mc2 equation – this should not happen but it did at CERN. Scientists at the Fermilab in Chicago are now working on the same experiment to see if they could replicate it. While the Chicago team previously showed a faster-than-light result in 2007, there was a margin of error that left questions.
Chicago’s instruments would be better in measuring the results. At issue is the most fundamental assumption of the laws of nature.

What I do not understand is how the Europeans can make a particle move faster than light in Geneva but it takes three hours to get a waiter to bring you a check in Paris.

Source: Telegraph

45 thoughts on “Fast Little Neutrino: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity Challenged By Test Showing Particle Traveling Faster Than Speed of Light”

  1. @Slart: You are right, I do not get it, because I think we can perfectly describe an electron, or a top quark, and their interactions. I believe we can perfectly describe a photon, or a neutrino. (the word “can” used in the sense that I believe it is possible.)

    I find appealing to the heroic fame of Hofstadter and waving your hands about how “the map is not perfect in the first place” unconvincing. I have read GEB, I have followed the math in Godel’s Incompleteness theorem. It’s been twenty years, but I guess I do not get out of those what you get.

    When you say hard science cannot perfectly describe every aspect of the universe, I understand you are making an appeal to Godel’s Incomplete theorem. Fine, I agree with that.

    But I do not see that it makes any difference, because perfectly describing every aspect of the universe is not the goal. Incompleteness does not imply that nothing is provable; or you might be out of a job!

    Further, Godel proved there may be statements that are true but cannot be proven, and that includes statements of the form “statement X cannot be proven or disproven.” So we don’t know whether any particular true statement can be proven or not, until it is proven.

    However, the question before us in this thread is not whether science can perfectly describe “every aspect of the universe,” but whether it can perfectly describe a very specific and tiny aspect of the universe, an upper bound on the speed of particles with mass.

    To do that we would need a mathematical model of the particles with mass and how they move or can be induced to move. But it also does not have to describe every aspect of the universe. The model is the description of primitive particles with near-zero features, and I do not think it is impossible to capture every feature of these particles. Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, cool as it is, does not apply to anything, it is like a warning sign to theorists: Beware! A subset of statements are true but unprovable, and there is no way to tell if your statement is one of them, except by affirmatively removing it from the subset by proving it true or false.

    So as a person trained to be a scientist, I agree with your cartoon, my feeling and intuition is that the superluminal neutrino won’t hold up, but that is human emotion talking, much like Einstein’s claim that “God doesn’t play dice.” As a dispassionate scientist, I say the fact that this data has been reviewed for months and was still published makes me suspect there is something non-trivial to be explained here and reconciled with other experiments, and it should not be dismissed emotionally or on the grounds of undesirable ramifications.

  2. You really don’t get it, do you Tony? The map of science is necessarily lossy – science (and I’m talking hard science here, not soft) will never succeed at perfectly describing every aspect of the universe – at least that’s what I believe. What you are talking about is the fidelity of the map – which is perfect – but that doesn’t change the fact that the map is not perfect in the first place. You can think what you want about the appropriateness of my metaphor, but unless you go read Hofsteadter and explain to me why he’s wrong, I’m just going to think you’re talking out of your ass about something you know nothing about and that he’s a Pulitzer prize-winning author who is an expert on the topic.

    As for your calculations – congratulations, you’ve debunked a joke (at least according to the comment’s author…).

    Mike A,

    As long as I have toys to play with and I’m fed regularly, I like it in my cage – In fact, I just got a new version of my toy so if you’ll excuse me…

  3. Elaine, one of the items mentioned in your link is the time travel party Hawking puts on every year and something that the Discovery Channel series, “Into the Universe spotlighted”. It was a cute segment that I saw when it was on TV. The image linked above is from a site that wrote about those parties and also had a totally cute cat/time travel photo. Thanks for the link and reminding me of the party.

    Is there a way to work cats into this discussion? YES! thanks to “histories of things to come” blog which also has an article spotlighting the time travel party Stephen Hawking has yearly.

  4. To show that I studied physics a long, long time ago. In 2002, an experiment showed that neutrinos had a very, very small mass. This punched a hole in the Standard model, which has dominated particle physics for the last fifty or more years. Of course, we have as yet figured out what causes a particle to have mass. We can talk about gravitational interaction, and neutrinos may have a gravitational interaction, just as photons do. The idea that neutrinos had some mass has always been based on the fact that they had been measured to travel more slowly than photons.

  5. I have always seen the speed of light being unattainable by a thing with mass. I have always seen the mass of the family of neutrinos, and anti nueutrinos to be zero, just like the mass of the photon. So Einsteins theory of Special Relativity still applies as tested every day for decades in particle accelleraters of all kinds still holds. Yes, Energy does = mass * the speed of light squared, moving clocks run slowly., and length is shortened in the direction of motion. Maxwell’s equation which require special relativity describe electro-magnetism still can be used to get TV signals and cell phones to work. Any new theory to replace special relativity would have to predict the same things.

    And by the way, General Relativity describes some things gravity does, but we still use Newton’s Theory of Gravity to navigate in space.

  6. And so it goes…

    STEPHEN HAWKING: How to build a time machine
    May 3, 2010

    So a supermassive black hole is a time machine. But of course, it’s not exactly practical. It has advantages over wormholes in that it doesn’t provoke paradoxes. Plus it won’t destroy itself in a flash of feedback. But it’s pretty dangerous. It’s a long way away and it doesn’t even take us very far into the future. Fortunately there is another way to travel in time. And this represents our last and best hope of building a real time machine.

    You just have to travel very, very fast. Much faster even than the speed required to avoid being sucked into a black hole. This is due to another strange fact about the universe. There’s a cosmic speed limit, 186,000 miles per second, also known as the speed of light. Nothing can exceed that speed. It’s one of the best established principles in science. Believe it or not, travelling at near the speed of light transports you to the future.

  7. I knew this would bring the scientists out of their cages. I predict with relativity certainty another thread exceeding 1,000 posts.

  8. @Slart: An upper limit on speed is not confusing the map for the territory, nor is the discovery of other absolutely bounding physical laws. I may not be able to precisely measure the mass of a proton, but I am not going to find any that mass a gram, and I won’t find any massless protons.

    I am not really defending the CERN result, I don’t know enough about it, but I do know enough to recognize that the criticisms being leveled are themselves not very scientifically justified. For example, as I pointed out above, not knowing precisely where in the target bar the neutrino originated is not a very valid criticism; the measurement is off by an average of 59 feet over 16,000 measurements; not a few inches in one measurement. Some of the other complaints seem, to my ears, to be quibbles that might account for a foot or two of innacuracy not 59 feet worth of inaccuracy.

    Certainly, to be fair, the 87 supernova result is the most compelling indicator this result is bogus; but it is not conclusive either.

    @Slart: Scientists put some aspect of the universe to the test in order to build some sort of predictive model for that aspect.

    Perhaps, but physics is not sociology; the physicist searches for an absolutely 100% predictive model. They are searching for maximum lossless compression. Your “map” versus “territory” metaphor doesn’t apply, because a map is a lossy compression of the information in the territory itself. Sociologists or marketers or politicians or geographers can make good use of “on average” information, physicists (like mathematicians) are not searching for something that is “usually” true, even if they have to put up with it sometimes for lack of a better alternative.

  9. @Slart: I think the loss of Anthony Weiner’s seat is a repudiation of Weiner’s character flaws, but perhaps I am wrong about that: Maybe, as I just said, liberals cannot win. Maybe the average American really does want to take their chances without a social safety net, maybe the average American really does favor corpocracy and plutocracy, maybe the average American really would rather give up their Constitutional Rights and be ruled by a religious monarch in return for a false promise of “safety.” I am quite serious about that; I cannot tell. I hope it isn’t true, but as far as I can tell the aveage American gives lip service to freedom then agitates to be stripped of it.

    If it IS true, we’re fucked no matter what; we live by majority rule and the majority will let it happen.

    But if it is NOT true, then the only way I know to get the average American to wake up and vote for what they DO want is to let the damn evil bastards actually legislate against it, so there is enough hardship to prompt the average American to rise up and take it back.

    In the meantime, I assume you will keep thinking that the same ineffective pablum that hasn’t really worked for decades will somehow magically start to be effective. Of course in Wisconsin, when the Republicans took something away the pro-union liberals ROSE UP, and although they lost I believe as that pain intensifies they will quite likely take it all back and write what they want into their State Constitution. But that is just me looking at the facts — When people felt or at least saw the pain these idiotic conservative policies caused them or their friends, they got involved and tried to turn the tide, and I think WILL turn the tide before the story is over.

  10. Tony C,

    I don’t want to hijack the interesting physics discussion, so I will grant that it is early to call your strategy a failure while pointing out that it doesn’t appear the the 2012 election cycle is encouraging liberals to run* and your idea of “putting seats in play” is ridiculous in light of the incumbency advantage (there is no reason to believe that the effect you hypothesize, even if it exists, could begin to offset the disadvantage of running against an incumbent).

    * I will grant that Elizabeth Warren’s** candidacy is consistent with your theory (although I can think of a half a dozen reasons why she’s an exception not a trend), but I think the loss of Anthony Wiener’s seat is probably a better indicator.


    As for scientists, I think that confusing the map and the territory is a serious mistake on the part of any scientist. If you want to discover unquestionable laws, then you should become a mathematician. Admittedly, theoretical physicists are pretty much just a sub-species of mathematician, but that only means they should be more careful about distinguishing the difference between their abstract mathematical constructs and the universe.

    Scientists put some aspect of the universe to the test in order to build some sort of predictive model for that aspect. In other words they look for a mathematical framework that they can use to describe an aspect of the universe. To me, that sounds an awful lot like drawing a map (using mathematics as the canvas to paint on and the language to write it in) of a particular territory in the universe. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think that the map/territory paradigm is a much more honest (and less egotistical) context for doing scientific research – as well as more accurate, which is, after all, what science is all about – making sure the next map is more accurate than the last one.


    No problem – I’m not planning on arguing with the LHC no matter what it says. General Relativity is beautiful mathematics even if it proves to be an inaccurate map. My guess is that, like Newtonian physics, the map will prove to be wrong in some places (or for some uses), but in others it will still work just fine (for all practical purposes).

  11. If this discovery is proven to be so, it will destroy many of the arguments on this blog regarding aliens.

  12. I think the LHC will go a long way to settling the GR/QCD bet. And sorry, Slart! Right now, I’m on Tony’s side with the “smart money”. I won’t go so far as to say Albert will (although he might) be proven wrong, but rather “color corrected”. If you’ll pardon the joke. Or not.

  13. @Slart: I don’t think physicists think they are producing a “map of the territory that doesn’t capture everything,” they are trying to discover the unbreakable laws of nature. The very idea of this topic, that light sets the speed limit for all matter, is indicative of that.

    As for my 2010 electoral strategy, the point was to unseat long-term lying Democratic Party incumbents to put their seat in play, so in 2012 we could get real committed liberals to run. It is a little early to be calling that strategy a failure. Maybe it will be, maybe committed liberals really cannot win and we are doomed to suffer rule by idiots. I said so before the 2010 elections, I didn’t think it was a sure thing, I thought is was our only hope.

  14. Mespo,

    Thanks – I probably read a little too much of Douglas Hofstadter’s writings at an impressionable age which is why I write sentences like this*. He talked quite a bit about the territory/map paradigm in Gödel, Escher, Bach.

    * that’s a joke, get it? 😉

  15. Slarti:

    I really like that science as map-maker metaphor. Very thought provoking and apt.

  16. Tony C said:

    Einstein already had his comeuppance, with Quantum ChromoDynamics. Einstein’s general relativity and QCD are incompatible; meaning one or both are wrong. All the smart money is on QCD.

    Regardless of where the “smart money” is, we don’t yet know that GR is wrong (while we have experiments that falsify Newtonian physics…).

    Einstein’s infinities suggest general relativity is just a better approximation of reality than Newtonian physics, which was also an approximation.

    Science will never produce anything other than an approximation of reality – that what it does. Science is just a mapmaker – and no map can possibly capture all of the information about the territory…

    For example, due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, matter cannot be condensed to an infinite point in a black hole.

    You’re implying that a scientist would believe that matter could ever collapse into a MATHEMATICAL singularity. Black holes, on the other hand, are by no means a point mass – theoretically speaking, it is impossible to know anything about what happens inside the Schwartzchild radius (the very small but not infinitesimal distance from the center of a PHYSICAL singularity at which escape velocity equals the speed of light). At least until someone finds a way to build a scanning device using tachyons…

    There are many other examples; including observable ones involving the tunneling effect of transistors and the role of quantum tunneling in spontaneous nuclear fission.

    Yes, the history of science is just a series of increasingly accurate approximations – did you figure that out all on your own?

    I’ll bet you $200 that this doesn’t pan out…

    By the way, I have to congratulate you on your genius 2010 electoral strategy – liberals stayed home and teabaggers showed up and all of the remaining Democrats saw the loss of the House as a clear sign that they need to become more progressive in order to get elected. Oh, wait a sec…

  17. Although faster-than-light force propagation speeds do violate Einstein special relativity (SR), they are in accord with Lorentzian relativity, which has never been experimentally distinguished from SR — at least, not in favor of SR.”

    (more here).

  18. Einstein already had his comeuppance, with Quantum ChromoDynamics. Einstein’s general relativity and QCD are incompatible; meaning one or both are wrong. All the smart money is on QCD. Einstein’s infinities suggest general relativity is just a better approximation of reality than Newtonian physics, which was also an approximation. For example, due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, matter cannot be condensed to an infinite point in a black hole. There are many other examples; including observable ones involving the tunneling effect of transistors and the role of quantum tunneling in spontaneous nuclear fission.

  19. Mespo said: “I’m waiting for that inevitable challenge to Newton.”

    You missed it – old Al already gave Newton what for. 😉 Maybe Einstein is about to get his comeuppance, but I agree with spacegoat that I wouldn’t hold my breath until scientists start saying so…

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