Today 13 December 2011 in a seminar held at CERN, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented the status of their searches for the Standard Model Higgs boson. An Italian experiment has unveiled evidence that fundamental particles known as neutrinos can travel faster than light. Other researchers are very cautious about the result, but if it stands further scrutiny, the finding would overturn the most fundamental rule of modern physics—that nothing travels faster than 299,792,458 meters per second.
The experiment is called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus), and lies 1,400 meters underground and it is designed to study a beam of neutrinos coming from CERN, Europe’s premier high-energy physics laboratory located 730 kilometers away near Geneva, Switzerland. Neutrinos are fundamental particles that are electrically neutral, rarely interact with other matter, and have a vanishingly small mass. But they are all around us—the sun produces so many neutrinos as a by-product of nuclear reactions that many billions pass through your eye every second.
The 1,800-tonne OPERA detector is a complex array of electronics and photographic emulsion plates, but the new result is simple—the neutrinos are arriving 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light allows. “We are shocked,” says Antonio Ereditato, a physicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and OPERA’s spokesman.
If MINOS were to confirm OPERA’s find, the consequences would be enormous. “If you give up the speed of light, then the construction of special relativity falls down,” says Antonino Zichichi, a theoretical physicist and emeritus professor at the University of Bologna, Italy. Zichichi speculates that the “superluminal” neutrinos detected by OPERA could be slipping through extra dimensions in space, as predicted by theories such as string theory.