Faster than the Speed of Light?


By Ashley Peterson

Did you feel that? Billions of neutrinos just zoomed through you. With a neutral charge and nearly zero mass, neutrinos slip through our bodies, all physical structures and the Earth at a constant rate. Neutrinos have long been considered the most mysterious of particles. Now, recent findings suggest that they are also the fastest — so fast that they may disprove Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Neutrinos.. . What's the Big Deal?

Neutrinos are the smallest particles that exist everywhere. They are able to travel through almost any material without slowing or stopping. Some researchers believe that unseen neutrinos may account for the universe's mysterious dark matter or are evidence of extra dimensions. Some study neutrinos in the hope of creating a communication system that could transmit messages without the use of wires or satellites. Others hope that a better understanding of these elusive particles may help locate secret nuclear reactors.

The Experiment

In a recent Italian experiment called OPERA, scientists used highly precise GPS equipment to determine that neutrinos travel .0025% faster than light. To put this in perspective, if a neutrino raced a light beam to the moon and back one million times, the neutrino would win by about a minute. Though the difference is seemingly tiny, scientists believe the implications are tremendous. According to Einstein, if a person could send a message faster than the speed of light, "You could send a telegram to the past."

Not So Fast...

While findings from the initial experiments are thrilling to many in the science world and beyond, the results have also created a great deal of scrutiny. There are plenty of potential sources of error that could account for the experiment's astonishing results; even the OPERA researchers are hesitant to celebrate. "My dream would be that another, independent experiment finds the same thing," OPERA spokesperson Dr. Antonio Ereditato told the BBC. "Then I would be relieved." Until the results are corroborated, Einstein remains king … relatively speaking.

Classroom Discussion

  • Discuss the possibilities that would exist if neutrinos actually can move faster than the speed of light.
  • Imagine the findings that will be made by the next few generations of scientists who are sitting in classrooms right now. If you were a scientist, what would you hope to discover?