Einstein’s Last Opera

Has Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity actually been refuted? Just last week, an international collaboration of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, dared to find out.

A time interval on the scale of trillionths of a second is all that’s needed to make or break the underlying basis of modern physics. The CERN physicists clocked subatomic particles, known as neutrinos, journeying a distance of 454 miles from an underground laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland to one in Gran Sasso, Italy 60 nanoseconds faster than the cosmic speed limit postulated by Einstein in 1905 – about 300 million meters per second.

Dario Autiero of the Institut de Phisique Nucléaire de Lyon in France told CERN physicists, “We cannot explain the observed effect in terms of systematic uncertainties … Therefore, the measurement indicates a neutrino velocity higher than the speed of light.”

Dr. Azzam Elayan, chemistry professor at Monmouth, said, “It may be possible for a neutrino, or any mass, to travel at a speed greater than the speed of light if and only if it is first converted, perhaps temporarily, to a type of particle that is lighter than a photon. This is especially difficult since a photon has no ‘rest mass.’”

Dr. Autiero’s experiment, known collectively as the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus (Opera) consists of a team of 160 physicists from 11 countries based in the Gran Sasso laboratory.

According to The New York Times website, the Opera experiment begins inside a tank of hydrogen gas at a CERN building. The hydrogen atoms become oxidized (with the loss of their electrons), resulting in lone protons that get bolted through a network of underground particle accelerators – eventually ending up in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the largest and most expensive particle accelerator on the planet.

The LHC then blasts the protons at super-high velocities and slams them in pulses ten microseconds apiece into a graphite tablet, where the protons actually produce a pulse of lesser particles known as mesons.

Quickly following their genesis, the mesons decay into neutrally charged subatomic particles called neutrinos which fly the distance from Geneva to Gran Sasso into an assemblage of lead bricks and photographic emulsion.

The protons are then hurled at high energies and slammed in pulses ten microseconds apiece into a graphite tablet, where they produce a pulse of lesser particles known as mesons. The mesons then decay into neutrinos that fly towards Gran Sasso into an assemblage of lead bricks and photographic emulsion.

Theoretically, some neutrinos during this trip can resonate between forms from muon neutrinos to tau neutrinos. The original goal of the Opera experiments was to map out, characterize, and analyze this transformation. In three years of research, only one tau neutrino has been detected out of the 16,000 total neutrinos in the Opera lab’s detector.

Despite the claims set forth by the Opera researchers, skepticism fills the cups of a great majority of the world’s physicists. Some are even calling it the “rumor of the century.”

One common critique of the results was that the laboratory was simply giving too much weight to a premature result by a group (Opera) that was not even part of CERN.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a particle theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton University, said on The New York Times website, “There was no need for a press release or indeed even for a scientific paper, till much more work was done. They claim that they wanted the community to scrutinize their result – well, they could have accomplished that by going around and giving talks about it.”

Among the first efforts to confirm Opera’s results, the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (Minos) will be able to do a more precise measurement in four to six months. The Minos researchers completed a similar measurement of neutrino speeds in 2007.

Wardha Qureshi, sophomore biology major, said, “Like the effects of a tsunami, this groundbreaking and exciting discovery will lead to the foundation of our present knowledge being completely shaken, whereby creating a ‘ripple effect’ in the physical sciences. We must embrace the fact that new discoveries will result in a vast improvement of our knowledge and will create the foundation of making more quantum leaps in the near future.”

Shivam Patel, sophomore biology major, said, “This break in science may cause a big impact if enough evidence is provide to ensure the veracity of the results. ‘If’ true, then our building blocks of science may have to be changed. Nonetheless, this break could explain many mysteries of science that are undiscovered thus far.”

Einstein’s theory sets a speed limit on all particles as the speed of light which, if surpassed, would cause the particles to go back in time. Opera’s results show the subatomic neutrinos as the missing link behind this supposed time travel and at the same time as the greatest antagonist to the theory of special relativity – which has nonetheless withstood blows from competing theories and speculations for over a century, and kept pulling victorious in the end…some say for a reason.

If Opera’s results hold true, as we will determine from experiments conducted in the upcoming months, today’s modern physics might face the need to be modernized yet again.

PHOTO COURTESY of newyorktimes.com