BEN BOVA: Oct. 16, 2011 ... Faster than light? Experiment opens interesting possibilities

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There’s an old Chinese curse that reads, “May you live in interesting times.”

For scientists, that’s not a curse, it’s a challenge, an opportunity. “Interesting times” means there’s something new in view, a possible fresh insight into the way the universe works.

In 1905 Albert Einstein made the times extremely interesting by publishing three papers that revolutionized physicists’ understanding of the universe.

The most famous of them was his theory of special relativity.

A brief word, first, about that word theory. In science, a theory does not mean a guess, a hypothesis, a wild speculation.

To a scientist, a theory is a model, a construction, a pattern that makes sense out of a broad array of studies and measurements, brings together perhaps many generations of experiments and observations, and shows how they are related. More than that, a scientific theory points the way to new observations, new experiments, new understandings.

In special relativity, Einstein postulated that the speed of light — measured to be slightly more than 186,000 miles per second — is a fundamental limit: nothing in the universe can move faster than light.

Since special relativity’s inauguration in 1905, physicists have tested Einstein’s concept in every way they could think of. Einstein always came out to be right: every test confirmed that nothing moves faster than light, down to many decimal places.

Until now.

Physicists at the mammoth European particle accelerator facility, CERN, have observed neutrinos moving faster than light.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that have no electrical charge and practically no mass.

Experimenters at CERN fired a beam of neutrinos from their particle accelerator near Geneva to a laboratory in Italy, 454 miles away. The neutrinos arrived at the receiver 60 nanoseconds faster than light could cover the distance.

A nanosecond is an incredibly small interval of time, one-billionth of a second: there are as many nanoseconds in one second as there are seconds in 32 years!

Still, modern atomic clocks can measure time in such small units, and the measurement of the neutrino beam in the CERN experiment has a margin of error of only 10 nanoseconds.

Apparently those neutrinos actually did travel faster than light. Jubilation! Interesting times!

But don’t pop the Champagne corks just yet. Science demands corroboration. One experiment must be confirmed by others before the scientific world accepts the new result.

So the CERN team is asking physicists at Fermilab, near Chicago, and in Japan to conduct similar experiments, to determine if their “faster-than-light” measurement is correct.

If it is, modern physics is due for a drastic overhaul. One of its bedrock foundations has crumbled.

And most physicists are tremendously excited about the prospect.

Unlike virtually every other human institution, science thrives on new discoveries. Institutions such as law, religion and social customs are all backward-looking. Their aim is to preserve the past, to keep everything just the way it was yesterday — no matter how dreary yesterday may have been. They don’t want change, they want stability.

Science is forward-looking, eager to find new ideas, new information, constantly seeking change. That’s why so many people fear science and scientists: most people fear change and dislike those who force them to face new facts.

There are no absolutes in science. Any idea — no matter how firmly entrenched it may be — can be toppled by a new discovery.

Einstein himself understood this. More than a century ago he said, “No amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

There is no “right” in science. There’s only “this is as much as we know — so far.”

The CERN experiment may be in error, although the physicists there have checked their results as carefully as they know how to do. Now they are asking other research teams to try the same kind of experiment. If these additional experiments verify CERN’s results, Einstein’s “speed limit” falls the way of earlier ideas that were eventually proven inadequate.

As a science-fiction writer, I’m rooting for CERN. If neutrinos can move faster than light, then maybe someday we’ll be able to build starships that can cross the light-years between the stars within a human lifetime.

Interesting times, indeed.

Bova’s latest futuristic novel is “Leviathans of Jupiter.” His website address is www.benbova.com.

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