Scientists at Switzerland’s CERN physics lab recently published evidence of neutrinos traveling at faster-than-light speeds, generating debate over the validity of their results. Jim Borgardt, professor of physics , gives his opinion on these findings and their implications.
Q: Is the discovery of faster-than-light particles as exciting as the media makes it out to be?
A: They’re still in the process of verifying it, but this has a relatively high probability of being verified. It will essentially make people reconsider some of Einstein’s theories on relativity. His theories say that you can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and these neutrinos travel a tiny, tiny bit faster than the speed of light. The speed of light is 300 million meters per second, and this travels an extra 6,000 out of that 300 million. It’s a really small deviation, but it’s still a deviation, so that’s why everyone’s excited about it.
Q: What are some explanations for this phenomenon?
A: Well, Newton developed mechanics for tabletop physics, but it’s limited to low speeds. People didn’t really know about really high speeds or were able to replicate them in a lab until the early 1900s. It took that long for people to notice some problems with Newtonian mechanics. So Einstein came up with his idea of relativity, which didn’t invalidate Newton, but expanded on his ideas.
In the same way, Einstein’s relativity is based in four dimensions, so extra dimensions could account for these results. For instance, if I asked you to find the shortest line between two points on a paper, you would just draw a straight line. But if the paper is bent, you could leave the paper and go between the points in a much shorter distance. A particle could go a little faster by taking advantage of these dimensions that we’re not aware of. For example, if I held a thin rod far away, it would look like a one-dimensional line, but, if I brought it closer, you could see that it has three dimensions. That’s the same idea. If you are able to look at a subatomic scale, there are hidden dimensions folded in that we can’t see. These particles could be a manifestation of these hidden dimensions.
Einstein died trying to work on quantum gravity. Quantum mechanics is the theory of things on a really small level, and gravity is the theory of things on a really big level. People are trying to merge these two together, but it’s inherently difficult. People have been working on this for a hundred years now, and ideas like super-string theory are attempts to do that. So, this could be a quantum gravity predictor of other dimensions. This could be the first proof of something concretely showing that. It’s still not confirmed, but if it is, it could explain what’s going on there.
Q: Do you think that these results will turn out to be accurate?
A: It’s hard to tell. It’s not my primary field, but from what I’ve read about it, it seems like they have it pinned down. It’s not due to some statistical or systematic error. But like any science experiment, it has to be verified. The more extreme the claim, the more thorough the proof has to be. It would expand on relativity, so it’s a pretty big claim. Even the people at CERN just put it out so that other people could replicate the experiment and verify it. They’re not even necessarily making the claim, they are just reporting the result and letting some other people see if they can verify it or not. So we’ll see if it gets borne out. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, because I am pretty confident that there are other dimensions that we are not aware of. Maybe this is the first proof in that direction.
Q: What implications would that have?
A: I don’t know what practical implications it would have, but it would be a big deal for physics. You hear from Star Trek about worm holes that are based on alternate dimensions. Knowing that it’s there and taking advantage of it are two different things, but it would make people reform some of the theories of physics. We would have to expand on relativity and say, well, relativity works if you’re looking at these dimensions or if you’re at a certain scale, and if you’re going to look at a closer scale you’re going to need this bigger theory that subsumes it. It’s not going to invalidate Einstein’s ideas, but it could expand upon them. There is always a bigger and bigger bubble of knowledge building on the shoulders of the giants that came before them. It would be a pretty big result. I’m sure that there would be Nobel prizes coming out of it down the line.
Q: How could these discoveries affect how you teach physics?
A: The physics students have all read about it, so it’s fun to talk about and mention in class. The theory is so advanced that it’s not something that you get into until graduate school. In terms of what we do here, it wouldn’t change the classes we teach. At this point it’s more about the philosophical implications of these hidden dimensions. In the same way, one of the things that they are trying to prove with this detector is whether time is continuous or discrete. It’s like a beach. If you magnify it more and more, eventually you get down to grains of sand, but the sand under your foot feels continuous. Is time this continuous flow, or is it individual moments in time that are so closely spaced that we are not aware of its discreteness? These are interesting philosophical things to think about, but in terms of our everyday lives and how we teach classes, it’s a level that you don’t really get into unless you take advanced physics.
~Laura Bitely ’14, Juniata Online Journalist