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Was Einstein Wrong? A French Experiment Could Upend The Very Basics Of Physics

Researchers from the French National Center of Scientific Research have found out that fundamental particles known as neutrinos can travel faster than light.

The end for Albert Einstein's century-old theory?
The end for Albert Einstein's century-old theory?
Cyrille Valerberghe

"If true," declares Thibault Damour, a French expert on Albert Einstein's theory of relativity "it's a genuine revolution for physics, a once-in-a-century kind of discovery." Big words indeed after a team of researchers at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Lyon, France, discovered that extremely light particles called " subluminic neutrinos " can travel faster than light. This fact is something strictly impossible according to Einstein's special relativity, for which no object with a mass could travel faster than 299,792,45 meters (186,282 miles) per second, the speed of light.

If the measures turn out to be accurate, the finding would overturn the most fundamental rule of modern physics. The consequences would be so far-reaching that the researchers are being very cautious and asked for the experiment to be replicated elsewhere, with another team, before they think about dumping Einstein's relativity in the trash heap of scientific history.

Still, the experiment led by the French scientists appears to be very trustworthy. It resisted six months of scrutiny by researchers called in specifically to try and find a flaw or a mistake in the methods. "It's so huge that we're seriously scared that we blundered somewhere, " says Stavros Katsanevas, Deputy Scientific Director of the IN2P3 (National Institute of Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics).

"Since we got the first results in March, we've checked them again and again with CNRS, and then with the international OPERA experiment (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tracking Apparatus), which performs tests on a neutrino detector. We haven't found anything yet, and the discovery was beginning to leak, so we decided to go public. "

A tiny lapse

A beam of neutrinos is apparently guilty for breaking the speed of light. These extremely light, weakly interacting particles were produced by the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) particle accelerator, and were detected under the Gran Sasso mountain located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy. Scientists expected the neutrinos to travel freely through the 731 kilometers of Earth's crust separating the two scientific centers at a speed nearing that of light – a journey of approximately 2.5 milliseconds.

But to the researcher's astonishment, the neutrinos reached the OPERA detector about 60 nanoseconds (60 billionth of a second) earlier than light. A lapse that seems tiny, but which no current theory can account for.

The team of researchers estimates the margin of error of the combined instruments at approximately 10 nanoseconds, which is still well below the recorded 60-nanosecond lapse.

Read the original story in French

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