CERN clocks subatomic particles traveling faster than light

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GENEVA - Scientists at the world's largest physics lab say they have clocked subatomic particles traveling faster than light, a feat that - if true - would break a fundamental pillar of science.

The readings have so astounded researchers that they are asking others to independently verify the measurements before claiming an actual discovery.

"This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, who was not involved in the experiment.

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Nothing is supposed to move faster than light, at least according to Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity: The famous E (equals) mc2 equation. That stands for energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.

But neutrinos - one of the strangest well-known particles in physics - have now been observed smashing past this cosmic speed barrier of 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers).

CERN says a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds, making the difference statistically significant. But given the enormity of the find, they still spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there was no flaws in the experiment.

The CERN researchers are now looking to the United States and Japan to confirm the results.

A similar neutrino experiment at Fermilab near Chicago would be capable of running the tests, said Stavros Katsanevas, the deputy director of France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research.

Katsanevas, who participated in the CERN experiment, said help could also come from the T2K experiment in Japan, though that is currently on hold after the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami in March.

Scientists agree if the results are confirmed, that it would force a fundamental rethink of the laws of nature, starting with the special theory of relativity proposed by Einstein in 1905.

Special relativity, which helps explain everything from black holes to the Big Bang theory about the origins of the universe, underlies "pretty much everything in modern physics," Ellis said. "It has worked perfectly up until now."

He cautioned that the neutrino researchers would also have to explain why similar results weren't detected before, such as when an exploding star - or supernova - was observed in 1987.

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