Faster Than Light?

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We will see how all this plays out, but as of now there is a report that neutrinos have been observed traveling slightly faster than the speed of light:

Well, that simple fact may be in the form of the latest experiments at the largest particle accelerators in the world, based at CERN, outside Geneva. Physicists fired a beam of neutrinos (exotic, ghost-like particles that can penetrate even the densest of materials) from Switzerland to Italy, over a distance of 454 miles. Much to their amazement, after analyzing 15,000 neutrinos, they found that they traveled faster than the speed of light—one 60-billionth of a second faster, to be precise. In a billionth of a second, a beam of light travels about one foot. So a difference of 60 feet was quite astonishing.

Cracking the light barrier violated the core of Einstein’s theory. According to relativity, as you approach the speed of light, time slows down, you get heavier, and you also get flatter (all of which have been measured in the lab). But if you go faster than light, then the impossible happens. Time goes backward. You are lighter than nothing, and you have negative width. Since this is ridiculous, you cannot go faster than light, said Einstein.

Who knows if this will hold up under all the endless testing and experimentation that is even now beginning.  If it does however, it is the biggest science story in at least the last century.  Too bad Einstein isn’t around now.  He would have loved to look at this, since he was always willing to alter theory to accord with evidence, an attitude in science not as prevalent as one might wish.







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  1. Technically, Einstein’s postulates of Special Relativity (and thus General Relativity) don’t need the speed of light in vacuum to be the absolute speed limit, it only requires that there is a maximum! Now we will be talking about neutrino-years as measures of distances 😉

    Also, I, an astrophysicist-in-training (getting my PhD in a few), can assure you that GR works, and I can give an example that everyone uses on a regular basis: global positioning systems.

  2. Unlike religion or politics, science will mercilessly pursue the evidence with repeated experiments

    Gotta love the totally gratuitous swipe at religion. What does the author (who identifies himself as a physicist) know about religion that he can make such a blanket statement? Has he himself mercilessly pursued the evidence regarding religion, or has he been a bit blinded by ideology?

    To some extent, his slam on politics is also inaccurate – polticians are notorious for following the opinion polls (i.e, evidence) of what the people want so they can tell them what they want to hear. Entire industries are built around it.

  3. Dear Mr. Kanos,

    Please push your fellow scientists to work aggressively on this matter.

    I figure I have only forty or so years left until I face Judgment and there are a number of things that I’d like to do over. Being able to make time go backwards – I have specific dates in mind – would be quite useful to me.


  4. *chuckles* There’s always a good chance that Einstein’s work, like that of those before him, is just very accurate where we can apply it and from where we’re looking. Part of why I like Star Trek’s FTL-by-slightly-changing-dimensions trick. (Come to think of it, isn’t there a theory that everything we think we know about space is only ‘true’ from a perspective like our own?)

  5. A neutrino is an electrically neutrally particle that only weakly interacts with matter. It comes in three varieties or “flavors”: the electron neutrino, the muon neutrino and the tau neutrino. Each variety can be matter or anti-matter. Normally, a neutrino is given off in beta decay of radionuclides (for conservation of momentum), in fission events within nuclear reactors (my job speciality), and in fusion events within the sun.

    In the a beta decay where a neutrino is produced, a positron (the anti-matter beta) will be emitted from the nucleus and there will also be a gamma photon. However, if that decay produces an anti-neutrino, then an electron (the regular matter beta) will be emitted from the nucleus and there will also be a gamma photon. The rule of thumb is simple: regular electron means an anti-matter electron neutrino and a positron means a regular matter neutrino. These neutrino emissions are of the electron variety. Muon and tau neutrino emissions require much high energy levels.

    There is an issue with neutrino emission from the sun. Apparently electron neutrino emission is one third to one half of what the standard solar model predicts would happen from fusion within the sun (hydrogen nuclei fusing to form helium nuclei and releasing vast amounts of energy due to the conversion of mass into energy because hydrogen and helium nuclei occupy different positions on the binding energy per nucleon curve). Supposedly this deficit in electron neutrino emission could only happen if the neutrinos could switch flavors (e.g., transform from electron neutrino to muon neutrino) or oscillate. The oscillation implies that neutrinos have mass. Unfortunately I don’t have the time or mathematical ability to discuss this intelligently beyond reiterating what the scientists say.

    Now anything that has mass (like a neutrino or yourself or myself) cannot exist at light speed. The reason why is that the higher the velocity of a particle, the greater its mass until at light speed its mass is infinite:

    m = mo / [SQR ( 1-v^2/C^2 )]

    As velocity (V) approaches light speed (C), [(V^2)/(C^2)] approaches one. One minus one is zero. The square root of zero is zero. Rest mass divided by zero is undefined.

    So……we now have a report from CERN that neutrinos (I suspect electron neutrinos – I shall have to read the whole thing) have been found at greater than light speed. Of course, what’s true for the electron neutrino might likely be true for its muon and tau cousins. And if neutrinos do go faster than light, then there is a fundamental problem with the Theory of Relativity. There would also probably be something wrong with our understanding of the weak nuclear force under which beta decay (and neutrino emission) occurs, and the strong nuclear force (which binds quarks together into protons and neutrons, and keeps the integrity of the atomic nucleus). I wonder what Richard Feynman would say?

    We live in interesting times. (But I hope I didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes above.)

  6. The Special Theory of Relativity is not Einstein’s in any meaningful sense. It was all worked by Larmor, Fitzgerald and Poincare before he came on the scene. (I do not have to warn you that you will come across a fair number of far-right sites if you google this.) Poincare was the scientist who gave the STR its modern garb. This is why all modern accounts start with something called the Poincare invariant and Poincare ‘boosts’ abound in calculations. Einstein’s gimmick was to take what others had painstakingly discovered, through experiment or profound examination of the foundations and declare them postulates. Thus he gets all the credit as a seer, whereas a great mathematician like Poincare (all of whose works the student Einstein read without acknowledgement), who did not accept that we needed to change our conceptions of space, time and simultaneity to the extend that the later development of relativity have it, is branded an unimaginative fellow – a ‘conventionalist’ if will. The hagiography surrounding Einstein is one of the wonders of the world.

    I do not know enough of the mathematics of the General Theory to handle it, but the claim that the viabilty of the GPS system proves the General Theory of Relativity is wrong. (See the internet discussions on this.)

  7. I think Ivan is correct. Just look at the equation m = mo / [SQR ( 1-v^2/C^2 )] and you’ll see the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction as clear as day: ( 1-v^2/C^2 ). George Fitzgerald and Hendrick Lorentz came up with this in the late 1800s. I’ll leave the history to Donald. 😉

    I don’t know about the use of Global Positioning System devices proving or disproving relativity, but there are many confirmations in nature. For example, the bending of light rays around the sun was observed in 1919 as a confirmation of General Relativity which is built on Special Relativity – again, another history lesson in Donald’s court. A second example: the increase in particle masses as their velocity approaches light speed in a particle accelerator is consistent with the relativity equation provided above. A third example: the loss of mass in fission products compared with the mass of the Uranium-235 atom that fissioned on thermal neutron absorption: that loss is exactly consistent with the energy released in the fission event as plotted on the binding energy per nucleon curve, demonstating the validity of the famous equation, E = m * c^2. Coincidentally that fission event always releases 10 MeV of its 200 MeV of energy as electron neutrinos (which is the topic of the post that Donald made). The figures are a little different for fission of Uranium-233 and Plutonium-239, but the principle holds and relativity still appears valid.

    Therefore, to date, as far as I know (and none of us knows everything) each experimental test done to confirm or disprove relativity has in fact confirmed it till now – neutrinos being observed above (C) (which is 186,282 mps) at CERN.

  8. To Paul D.’s point, can anyone explain why the discovery of a particle going faster than light speed necessarily implies that the arrow of time can be reversed? Time is a dimension like length, width and height or depth. It is the axis at right angles to length, width and height or depth. Of course visualizing that is very difficult (I can’t do it – not enough brain power). It’s like visualizing three pencils in your hands at right angles to each other and you try to make a fourth intersect at right angles. You can’t do that in three dimensional space.

    Now the unique thing about time is its arrow. It always goes from past to future. This means that events always have causes, and that events never precede their causation. To go backwards in time would invalidate this principle.

    However, there is something called charge – parity – time symmetry. I am not sure I understand this very well. Wikipedia states, “The implication of CPT symmetry is that a ‘mirror-image’ of our universe — with all objects having their positions reflected by an imaginary plane (corresponding to a parity inversion), all momenta reversed (corresponding to a time inversion) and with all matter replaced by antimatter (corresponding to a charge inversion)— would evolve under exactly our physical laws.”

    This symmetry can be violated on the quantum level. Supposedly there can be particles for which the arrow of time is reversed. Perhaps an example would be an anti-matter particle going forward in time might be an normal matter particle going backward in time. But maybe my explanation is bad because my brain can’t handle the math.

    Suffice it to say that time travel on a marcoscopic level is likely not possible. God set up the universe with an arrow in the fourth dimension pointed only one way and it’s just as well He did. The consequences otherwise would be devastating were man to discover how to go back in time.

    BTW, God being God is outside of space and time, matter and energy. He “sees” all the universe from the Big Bang 13.73 billion years ago to the cosmic dissipation billions and billions of years hence as one complete object. The miracle is that He decided to become incarnate – subject to the very laws of mathematics that He created. Perhaps we might consider Him a programmer using a software language called mathematics to create this universe. He isn’t in the run-time container (though as Jesus He did deign to go into the run-time container for a set period). He’s outside of space-time. But He doesn’t pull the strings as the Calvinist predestinationists thought. He lets the program run with the fuzzy logic built in – our free will, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, etc. He knows what will happen because He sees all of space-time now. But He lets us do what we will to do without programming our actions to occur. The program simply allows the actions. But I digress and talk about things on which I have no expertise. The point is that if we use the analogy of a software program (yes, a crude analogy), we can see why the program was designed to run in one direction and not another. It’s sort of like a Fortran program that starts at line 10 and runs to conclusion; there may be IF…THEN statements, GOTO statement, DO loops, etc., but the general progression is from beginning to end. Events never precede causes. That’s time. Does that make sense or am I all hosed up?

  9. Well, C. S. Lewis had an idea that all talk of past, present and future in relation to God was pointless since he IS. This was Lewis’ idea of Eternal Now. See how Richard Land applies this to argue the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

  10. Sorry to post again, but yes, I do know that:

    Delta-t prime = Delta-t / SQR [ 1 – (v^2)/(C^2) ]

    This is “where Delta-t is the time interval between two co-local events (i.e. happening at the same place) for an observer in some inertial frame (e.g. ticks on his clock) – this is known as the proper time, Delta-t prime is the time interval between those same events, as measured by another observer, inertially moving with velocity v with respect to the former observer, v is the relative velocity between the observer and the moving clock, [and] c is the speed of light…” (Sorry, folks, I cheated and used Wikipedia.)

    Thus, the rate at which time proceeds for a particle at velocity (V) decreases as it approaches (C). We see this in the acceleration of radionuclides in particle accelerators. Their rate of decay slows down the faster they get. That means at light speed time would stop for them (which is clearly impossible because the particle’s mass would be undefined or infinite).

    So if we go above light speed, wouldn’t time go backwards? Well, the equation breaks down. (v^2)/(C^2) goes greater than one because (V) is greater than (C). One minus any number greater than one is always a negative number. The square root of a negative number is undefined. So I don’t necessarily buy into the reversal of time’s arrow UNLESS that reversal happens by going into a hidden dimension above four (there are Grand Unified Theories that speculate on dimensions up to 10 where in the Big Bang six remained rolled up but four unfolded: length, width, and height or depth). And once a particle goes into a hidden dimension, could it ever come out?

    I don’t think so. God designed time with an arrow for a reason – to keep us out of more trouble.

  11. Paul Primavera- I really appreciate your analogy and thinks its an apt one which serves the purpose well. As for your statement that “Events never precede causes. That’s time.”, isn’t this a necessary logical truth of metaphysics?

  12. Paul D., I think you are correct but I know little to nothing about metaphysics. I would say that what we know about physics today supports the validity of the metaphysics.

    However, as I was thinking about this whole thing, I recalled how back in Nuclear Power School decades ago we used to take the square root of negative numbers in electrical science class to define the relationship between real and reactive electrical power. We used the letter “i” (for “imaginary”) next to the number obtained by the square rooting process to denote that we had in fact taken the square root of a negative number. This could be used to explain the phase relationship between voltage and current coming out of a generator. Basically, they twist about each other in a sort of three-dimensional way, being themselves two dimensional.

    So if a particle goes faster than light, and time proceeds backwards for it, then would it not likewise twist but into a dimension above four just as two dimensional current and voltage can “twist” three dimensionally? But all this is surely just speculation. Once Charge – Parity – Time symmetry is violated, you can’t go back. The metaphysics says no, and the physics must follow.

    I am tired. Maybe I will think more clearly in the morning. I have to dig up all those old polar to rectangular coordinate equations so that Donald can be tortured with something other than history. 😉

  13. Folks,

    I might have been incorrect in my last comment last night. I do recall something about the use of imaginary numbers (i.e., numbers resulting from taking the square root of a negative number) in electrical science classes a long time ago. I seem to recall this was in relation to computing impedance in resistive, capacitive and inductive circuits, and in calculating true, apparent and reactive power in AC systems. But while I was hoping to make an analogy with taking the square root of [ 1 – (V^2)/(C^2) ] when (V) is greater than (C), I just don’t remember the details. Too many brain cells have died in between US Naval Nuclear Power School and now. Suffice it to say that what happens to an object with a (V) equal to or greater than (C) is undefined and probably can’t occur in fourth dimensional space-time. In other words, events do not and cannot precede causes in space-time.

    Now the observation of neutrinos at a velocity greater than (C) at CERN raises some questions.

    (1) Is 186,282 mps in a vacuum – (C) – the speed limit for all particles of mass everywhere? In other words, might the speed limit be different depending on the type of particle being observed?
    (2) Or have neutrinos always existed a little above (C), and when at or below (C) they cease to exist? (This reminds me of tachyons – different topic for a different comment entry.)
    (3) Or does (C) as the speed limit change regardless of particle type and if yes, then what causes the speed limit to change?

    Regardless of the answers to these questions, I don’t think we will see time travel – at least not in our life times. The arrow of time holds valid.

  14. These scientists are wrong. It’s neither the speed of light or neutrinos that are the fastest thing in the universe. It’s clearly a shopper heading to an empty checkout line.

  15. Its interesting that these results are coming from CERN. One can only imagine the heads rolling, had it been announced from one of the hidebound US laboratories. Earlier CERN was in the news for some cloud experiments, that lent weight to Henrik Svensmark’s theory that much of the temperature rise that the global-warming cult would have us give up our freedom and comforts for, can in fact be traced to cosmic rays. Thus effectively dissipating the delirium of the champagne socialists as cosmic rays are beyond human control. I surmise that at least a few scientists at CERN have had ‘a road to Damascus’ experience after the failure to detect the Higgs particle and are now in full renegade mode.

  16. For those who don’t know what the Higgs boson is, please go here:

    In the Standard Model we have the following for forces:

    The electromagnetic force mediated by photons which are massless
    The weak nuclear force mediated by W+, W- and Z0 bosons having mass
    The strong nuclear force mediated by red, green and blue gluons
    Gravity mediated by the Graviton (which has not been discovered)

    For leptons we have:

    Electrons and positrons, and electron neutrinos and anti-neutrinos
    Muons and anti-muons, and muon neutrinos and anti-neutrinos
    Taus and anti-taus, and tau neutrinos and anti-neutrinos

    For quarks we have:

    The +2/3 up quark and the -1/3 down quark, as well as their anti-matter variant
    The charm and strange quark, as well as their anti-matter variant
    The top and bottom (or truth and beauty) quark, as well as their anti-matter variant (Top or truth has not been discovered).

    NOTE 1: two +2/3 up quarks plus one -1/3 down quark = a proton, and two -1/3 down quarks plus one +2/3 up quark = a neutron. Quarks are held together by red, green and blue gluons – the strong nuclear force. Anti-quarks are held together by red, green and blue anti-gluons.

    NOTE 2: normal matter is electron / up quark / down quark dependent. A certain asymmetry resulted in matter dominating over anti-matter in the Big Bang. Additionally, matter made up of charm / strange quarks and muons, or top / bottom quarks and taus have not been observed in nature.

    NOTE 3: there is no quantum theory of gravity that can integrate the theoretical graviton with all this. We do have quantum electrodynamics which unites the electromagnetic force with the weak nuclear force mediated by W+, W- and Z0 bosons. We also have quantum chromodynamics which unites the strong nuclear force (mediated by gluons and affecting quarks) with the weak and electromagnetic forces. We still (as Ivan explained) have not discovered the “God” particle, i.e., the Higgs boson that gives particles their mass. So we still don’t know everything… things should be. 😉

  17. “That’s time. Does that make sense or am I all hosed up?”

    No, I think does make sense Paul. @ at 9:20pm. Thanks, very interesting analogy. I’m still trying to visualize how time slows down as one speeds up.

  18. Jasper,

    If you were the one speeding up, you would not see time for yourself speeding up. You would see time in the universe around you speeding up. If a person in the universe around you were watching you, then he would see you slowing down though you would swear that for you a second is still a second and a minute a minute and an hour an hour. You see, it’s all based on the velocity of light being invariant.

    BTW, if survivable the same thing happens at the event horizon of a black hole: If you’re near enough to that horizon, then you would see the universe speeding up, but the universe would see you slowing down.

    Here’s another thing: in Newtonian physics, if you’re in a car going at 30 mph and you throw a ball out of the car directly in front at 30 mph, then the total velocity of the ball is 60 mph. But close to or at light speed, that’s not the case. If you’re in a spaceship at 90% of light speed and you shine a laser beam directly out in front of you, then the beam still travels at light speed, NOT [ light speed + 90% of light speed ]. It’s the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction that makes things this way. There is no speed > (C).

    On a graph you would see time changing its vector, not light speed.

  19. Here’s another thing: in Newtonian physics, if you’re in a car going at 30 mph and you throw a ball out of the car directly in front at 30 mph, then the total velocity of the ball is 60 mph. But close to or at light speed, that’s not the case. If you’re in a spaceship at 90% of light speed and you shine a laser beam directly out in front of you, then the beam still travels at light speed, NOT [ light speed + 90% of light speed ]. It’s the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction that makes things this way. There is no speed > (C).

    I have been lost in much of this, but this explanation was perfect. Thanks.

  20. I find the following curious:

    (1) For an object at velocity (V) one day to him can be a 1000 years to a stationary object.
    (2) There are THREE sets of quarks: up/down, charm/strange, top/bottom
    (3) It takes THREE quarks to make a proton or a neutron
    (4) There are THREE kinds of electrons: the regular electron and its anti-matter variety, the muon and its anti-matter variety, the tau and its anti-matter variety
    (5) There are THREE kinds of neutrinos: the regular electron neutrino and its anti-matter variety, the muon neutrion and its anti-matter variety, the tau neutrino and its anti-matter variety
    (6) Quarks come in THREE sets of colors: Red and anti-red, green and anti-green, blue and anti-blue
    (7) The weak nuclear force is mediated by THREE particles: W+, W-, Z0
    (8) Atoms heavy than hydrogen are made of THREE particles: electron, proton and neutron

    Am I imagining things or making up patterns that don’t really exist?

  21. Folks,

    I erred in one of my entries above. It is quarks (up/down, charm/strange, top/bottom) which come in “colors” red, green and blue. And it is gluons which bind them together:

    Two ups and one down = proton
    Two downs and one up = neutron

    There are however eight independent color states of gluons. You can read about that here:

    Sorry about the error.

  22. So, based on the above, it seems time travel would be theoretically possible, at least one way? Forward, but no going back? It would be time travel in a “loose” sense – you would still be experiencing time, just at a different rate (eg, one second to the traveler could be like ten years to the stationary object)?

  23. “It would be time travel in a “loose” sense – you would still be experiencing time, just at a different rate (eg, one second to the traveler could be like ten years to the stationary object)?”

    Yes, C Matt, that is correct. The closer you get to light speed, the faster you would see events in the universe proceed, and to a stationary object the events that proceed for you would preceived as slower. Taken, I suppose, to its logical conclusion, at light speed you stop and the end of the universe occurs. This same phenomenon happens at the event horizon of a black hole. Furthermore, the arrow of time permits “time travel” in one direction only. Anything other than that might allow events to precede causes. But these are merely words. The truth is in the equations which cannot always be adequately described by words.

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