Note the word "may" in this blog post title. That's the most important thought in the potentially super-exciting story of how CERN researchers may have discovered that neutrinos travel slightly faster than the speed of light.
If this is true, the implications would be astronomical. Literally.
Because a leading explanation for the Einstein-defying neutrinos (his theory of relativity makes the speed of light an absolute speed limit) is that the nearly massless particles are taking a short cut through extra dimensions of reality on their way from CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, to a particle detector near L'Aquila, Italy.
An article in the most recent issue of New Scientist describes how this would leave Einstein's theory valid, while allowing the appearance of faster-than-light neutrinos.
Download 'Light-speed' neutrinos point to new physical reality - physics-math - 28 September 2011 - New Scientist
In 2006, Pakvasa, Päs and Weiler came up with a model that allows certain particles to break the cosmic speed limit while leaving special relativity intact. "One can, if not rescue Einstein, at least leave him valid," Weiler says.
The trick is to send neutrinos on a shortcut through a fourth, thus-far-unobserved dimension of space, reducing the distance they have to travel. Then the neutrinos wouldn't have to outstrip light to reach their destination in the observed time.
In such a universe, the particles and forces we are familiar with are anchored to a four-dimensional membrane, or "brane", with three dimensions of space and one of time. Crucially, the brane floats in a higher dimensional space-time called the bulk, which we are normally completely oblivious to.
The fantastic success of special relativity up to now, plus other cosmological observations, have led physicists to think that the brane might be flat, like a sheet of paper. Quantum fluctuations could make it ripple and roll like the surface of the ocean, Weiler says. Then, if neutrinos can break free of the brane, they might get from one point on it to another by dashing through the bulk, like a flying fish taking a shortcut between the waves (see illustration).
This is way cool. Again, if it is true.
For thousands of years mystics have been attempting to reach higher dimensions of reality, but no convincing demonstrable evidence of a successful trip has been revealed.
So science might be on the verge of doing what religion, mysticism, and other forms of spirituality have failed to accomplish: discover extra spatial dimensions of reality beyond the three we know of now.
What distinguishes the scientific method is the caution with which this potentially revolutionary finding is being treated.
Rather than making grandiose claims, as so many religious types do, the scientists who observed the seemingly faster than light neutrinos spent years trying to prove that they were wrong.
The researchers at Cern in Switzerland and Gran Sasso in Italy have tried really hard to find what they might be doing wrong - over three years and thousands of experiments - because they can hardly believe what they are seeing.
The publication of their results is a call for help to pick holes in their methods, and save physics as we now know it.
"The scientists are right to be extremely cautious about interpreting these findings," said Jim Al-Khalili, a physicist from the University of Surrey, who suggested that a simple error in the measurement is probably the source of all the fuss.
Frequently I get criticized by true believers who don't think that skepticism, questioning, and doubting should be part of a religious, mystical, or spiritual practice. Yet many of these same believers consider that they are devotees of a science of the soul.
Well, you can't have it both ways.
If you want to embrace science, then open and vigorous debate is how erroneous findings are distinguished from valid findings. If you don't want your faith to be questioned, then forget about calling yourself a spiritual scientist and admit that you're just another religious believer who embraces blind faith.
I hope the CERN results are substantiated, because it's been a long time since physics has experienced a massive paradigm shift, and I'd like to be an observer of it. But there's a way to go before "faster than the speed of light" becomes a truism rather than a remote possibility.
Here's how a Wired article describes the caution of the CERN researchers (which tends to get overlooked by breathless stories in the mainstream media).
The final paragraph is what appears to be overlooked all too often in the reporting on this finding:
Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potential great impact of the results motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results.
This is an important paragraph. This is the group of physicists, together, stating that they don’t know how they came to a result that shows neutrinos apparently exceeding the speed of light. They are not drawing any conclusions in this article and are simply providing the finding and the methods used to obtain the finding. They are trying to find where there could be errors in their measurements. They do not claim that the neutrinos are actually exceeding the speed of light, only that the measurements to date show something unexpected.
They are reaching out to the high-energy physics community to improve the experiment and data analysis. They are not looking to fundamentally change physics but to ensure that they are producing sound data. We may find that nothing comes of this. We may find that there is an effect known in physics that accounts for the difference. We may find that neutrinos are capable of moving slightly faster than the speed of light. It is simply too early to make definitive, wide-reaching conclusions.
The conclusion that can be drawn from this article is that a group of experimenters found an unexpected result using some of the most amazing and precise instruments and techniques ever created. No matter what is found to be the actual cause of this 60.7 nanosecond variation, the conclusion you can draw is that it is an amazing time in history where such measurements can be made and an exciting time to be a practitioner or admirer of science.
Imagine the findings that will be made by the next couple generations of scientists who are sitting in elementary classrooms right now and just learning that a rainbow is the spectrum of sunlight. Einstein wouldn’t be disappointed by these findings; he would be intrigued and proud to see the legacy of great science continuing forward.