New Delhi: Whirring mysterious particles that are part of the massive experiments in the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, may have upset century-old laws of physics that, among other things, make time travel impossible and keep the fastest moving objects slower than light.
As part of ongoing experiments, neutrinos, among the most mysterious constituents of matter, were sent through the ground from CERN on the Franco-Swiss border towards the Gran Sasso laboratory 732km away in Italy. Strangely, they seemed to show up nanoseconds earlier than they were supposed to.
“When an experiment finds an apparently unbelievable result and can find no artefact of the measurement to account for it, it’s normal procedure to invite broader scrutiny, and this is exactly what the OPERA collaboration is doing, it’s good scientific practice,” CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci said in a press statement. “If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to be sure that there are no other, more mundane, explanations. That will require independent measurements.” OPERA refers to the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus, the name of the experiment.
Naba Mondal, a particle physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, said though the results were unprecedented, a more conclusive understanding of the phenomena would begin unfurling over the next three months.
“These are results that shake the foundations of physics. But the Fermilab (an underground laboratory in Illinois, the US, dedicated to neutrino studies) will perform independent evaluations. That should hopefully be out in the next three or four months and give us a clearer view of any experimental errors,” he said.
Experimental errors may creep in from the inherent uncertainties in measurement methods to evaluate neutrino speeds, according to scientists associated with the experiment. “We have established synchronization between CERN and Gran Sasso that gives us nanosecond accuracy, and we’ve measured the distance between the two sites to 20 centimetres,” said Dario Autiero, among the researchers involved in the study. “Although our measurements have low systematic uncertainty and high statistical accuracy, and we place great confidence in our results, we’re looking forward to comparing them with those from other experiments.”
The intriguing results were put up on arxiv.org, a respectable online repository of particle physics experiments that allows experts from across the world to review and evaluate the results of experiments. Research results that stand these tests then make their way to formal published journals.
The OPERA experiment was inaugurated in 2006, with the main goal of studying how neutrinos morph into various avatars as they travel through space. According to Einstein’s theories, the faster a particle travels, the heavier it becomes, and as it approaches the speed of light, it becomes infinitely heavier. However, neutrinos are strange quirky offshoots of the formation of matter that were initially thought to be massless, and travelling at the speed of light. However, for even neutrinos to travel faster than light—at 380,000 km per second—was still a theoretical impossibility.
Mondal added CERN experiments weren’t really looking for neutrinos. “This is almost like an accidental discovery. That is what makes this so surprising. Because a consortium of scientists has evaluated the data over months, chances of them making a mistake are extremely slim,” he said.