Scientific breakthrough: Physicists at CERN have recorded particles moving faster than light

Looks like Einstein may have been wrong — An international team of scientists at CERN has recorded neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light.

According to Reuters:

Antonio Ereditato, who works at the CERN particle physics center on the Franco-Swiss border, told Reuters that measurements over three years showed the neutrinos moving 60 nanoseconds quicker than light over a distance of 730 km between Geneva and Gran Sasso, Italy.

"We have high confidence in our results. But we need other colleagues to do their tests and confirm them," he said.

If confirmed, the discovery would overturn a key part of Albert Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity, which says that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light.

io9 spoke with James Gillies — head of communications and spokesman for CERN — about the team's results.

"It's important to make clear that nobody is claiming a discovery, or any contradiction with relativity," explained Gillies. "The OPERA experiment has a measurement they can't account for, so they're opening it up for further scrutiny, and hopefully an independent measurement from another lab."

The OPERA experiment that Gillies is referring to is designed to investigate the phenomenon of neutrino oscillations, wherein elementary particles known as leptons spontaneously transmutate (or shift) from one flavor of subatomic particle (called muon-neutrinos) into another (so-called tau-neutrinos).

Scientific breakthrough: Physicists at CERN have recorded particles moving faster than light

CERN provides the OPERA experiment with an energetic beam of pure muon-neutrinos. This beam travels a distance of 732 km to an underground lab in Gran Sasso, Italy, where scientists observe how many of the original muon-neutrinos have transmutated into oscillated tau-neutrinos. Shown here is the OPERA detector located in the Gran Sasso underground labs.

All told, the neutrinos take just 2.3 milliseconds to make the trip from Geneva to Gran Sasso. But in the course of performing their experiments, the researchers in the OPERA Collaborative noticed that the neutrinos were consistently arriving in Gran Sasso 60 billionths of a second ahead of schedule, i.e. 60 nanoseconds faster than light would over the same distance.

According to the BBC, Ereditato has referred to the OPERA team's findings as "an apparently unbelievable result," but after 15,000 measurements the researchers' findings look surprisingly sound.

"My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing — then I would be relieved," said Ereditato. "We are not claiming things, we want just to be helped by the community in understanding our crazy result — because it is crazy."

"And of course," continues Ereditato, "the consequences can be very serious."

The team has opted to make their results available online, allowing other physicists to more closely inspect and verify their results, and will hold a seminar to discuss their findings. [UPDATE: The seminar was broadcast live from Geneva on September 23, and here's our report on what the scientists said.]

Want to know more about what neutrinos are? Read io9's Field Guide to Subatomic Particles.

Could this possibly lead to faster-than-light travel? io9's resident physicist, Dave Goldberg, explains why that's not likely. (Sorry!) And here's Dave's cautious take on this latest news.

[Via Reuters, BBC, and OPERAWeb]

Top image via Ilias Strachinis/Shutterstock