Intelligent Energy

From Britain, new dimensions on the speed of light

Posting in Energy

The defiant neutrinos that travelled faster than the laws of physics allow might have actually taken a short cut -- but no ordinary short cut.

The neutrinos that travelled faster than the speed of light from Geneva to near Rome might have taken a short cut, which would mean they did not break physics’ ultimate speed barrier after all.

That was one possible explanation offered by popular British physicist Brian Cox as he and scientists around the world struggle to explain how the particles exceeded light speed, which should not be possible according Einstein’s long accepted theory of special relativity.

As we reported last week, CERN researchers noticed that neutrinos they beamed from Switzerland arrived a few billionths of a second ahead of light at the Gran Sasso laboratory about 75 miles northeast of Rome.

The researchers were so baffled by the Einstein-buster that rather than proclaim they had shattered physics’ fundamental law, they appealed for worldwide help in spotting possible errors or explanations.

In a BBC audio, Cox suggests that the neutrinos could have taken a short cut. Keeping with the mind-boggling spirit of the whole affair, it would have been no run-of-the-mill shortcut. Rather, the neutrinos could have tapped into one of the extra dimensions that some physicists have theorized co-exist with the three dimensions with which we’re all familiar (four if you include time).

If these dimensions are indeed out there, “Then things can take shortcuts through the extra dimensions,” says Cox, who likens such a cut-through to tunnelling from London to Sydney rather than flying.

Cox is clear that he’s only offering a possible alternative explanation. At the moment, no one has any solid reason to refute the defiantly fast neutrinos.

Could neutrinos provide the fuel that would propel time traveling machines such as Dr. Who's phone booth tardis?

If the light speed results stand, they would mark “The most profound discovery of the last hundred years or more in physics,” says Cox, a physics professor at Manchester University, a member of CERN’s ATLAS Large Hadron Collider experiment, and the host of BBC TV’s Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System series (he’s a sort of second coming of Carl Sagan). “It requires a complete rewriting of our understanding of the universe," if true, he says.

The CERN discovery was serendipitous. The lab’s OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion t-Racking Apparatus) group had sent the subatomic particles on their 455-mile journey to see how many of them would flip from a muon state to a tau. CERN announced its surprise finding with the scientifically understated headline, “OPERA experiment reports anomaly in flight time of neutrinos from CERN to Gran Sasso."

No telling what else we might find next by accident. The world does sometimes seem like a topsy-turvy place where anything can happen. The Buffalo Bills are undefeated. Explain that.

Photos: Top, Nic McPhee/Flickr; Bottom, Paul Hayes/Wikimedia

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure