Saturday, September 24, 2011
Faster Than A Speeding Photon?
According to our best theories of physics, nothing can travel through space faster than the speed of light, this is integral to Einstein's theory of relativity. That's why the news from the OPERA collaboration at CERN that an experiment has observed neutrinos apparently traveling faster than the speed of light is so mind-blowing. Of course, as often happens in science, when experimental results tend to defy well-evidenced and generally-accepted scientific theories, this is much more likely the result of an error in the experiment or its interpretation. It is unlikely that the neutrinos in question actually did travel faster than light speed, but one of the things that science does really well is to find its own mistakes. And considering the earth shattering implications of this finding should it be confirmed, there are no doubt multitudes of particle physicists dissecting the data and trying to confirm or disprove the results.
Nonetheless, it is an awe-inspiring prospect to consider the implications of faster than light neutrinos. Not being a physicist myself I don't have the best grasp on all of the details, but even from a lay perspective the implications make my mind reel. Going against relativity, faster than light travel destroys the idea of causality, that an effect can not precede a cause. Causality is the basis for all science. Faster than light travel opens the door to time travel. As Einstein described, the faster we move relative to something else the slower our time moves in relation to that time. At the speed of light, it is thought that time "stops", it does not move forward. Presumably then, moving faster than light would cause time to go backward.
These results, if accurate, would shake the physical sciences to their core. However, applying the very scientific principle of Ockham's razor, which is the simpler explanation: that a century of scientific evidence and theory are mistaken, or that an experiment got screwed up? Regardless of whether the results turn out to actually turn physics on its head, it is mind-expanding to consider the possibilities. Call it a thought experiment.