“Driver’s license and proof of insurance, please,” is the way it often begins. Specular glints of sunlight carom from mirrored sunglasses. Busted for speeding, think it can’t happen to you? It supposedly happened to muon neutrinos, proceeding from Switzerland to Italy. In my Italian travels, speed-demons seemed to be of little interest to authorities. But the cognoscenti recognized that never before had the implications of speed – superluminal speed – been so profound. Alas, heads have rolled; OPERA collaboration heads. Antonio Ereditato stepped down as chief of the OPERA experiment along with Dario Autiero, after their findings were debunked and following a vote of no-confidence by leaders of groups within the collaboration.
A NIGHT AT OPERA: You may recall that 732 kilometers (454 miles) from CERN, Europe’s high-energy physics research epicenter, there exists an enormous Italian neutrino detector called OPERA. Traveling at the velocity of light, designated “c” and equal to 2.99792 x 108 meters per second (186,282 miles per second), the time of flight from CERN to OPERA is 0.00244 seconds, about the length of time a tennis ball when struck forcibly resides on a racquet’s strings. Einstein’s Relativity Theory requires that nothing surpass the velocity of light traveling in a vacuum, much less something traveling under the Swiss and Italian Alps down into an Italian cave. So imagine the surprise of OPERA scientists when neutrinos appeared to arrive a whopping 6×10-8 seconds (0.00000006 seconds) faster than would have photons, quanta of light!
GENTLEMEN, SYNCHRONIZE YOUR WATCHES: Until recently, there was a furor over the possibility that Relativity may need an upgrade (Relativity 2.0?) or need to be scrapped altogether. After all, why is it called Relativity? Is it because it describes a set of transformations between bodies in relative motion? Maybe because the transformations demonstrate that when bodies are in relative motion, space varies, time varies, space-time varies, seemingly everything varies relative to the magnitude of c and the fact that it is the ultimate speed limit for our observable universe. After the controversial measurements were disclosed, a kerfuffle raged with eminent physicists, the blogosphere and metaphysicians all weighing in on why the results demonstrating superluminal speed were (un)true. The physics establishment, composed mostly of the former, enumerated many potential sources of error. Apparently, clocks at the two labs that were not truly synchronized were the culprits.
BEAM ME UP, HENDRIK: The possibilities were that neutrinos travel below, exactly equal to, or above c. Should the first two possibilities have prevailed, go back to sleep, physics, and by extension our understanding of the physical world, would remain unchanged. But, had the neutrino’s speed exceeded c, that would have been interesting. In that case, all of the solutions to the Hendrik Lorentz transformations, which have been verified to describe our physical reality, would be physically incomprehensible.
THERE ARE MORE THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH …EINSTEIN: Pray thee, why so mum, CERN scientists? The metaphysicians, in stark contrast, have had much to say: Here is mathematical, Einsteinian proof, in the form of undeniable imaginary roots to the Lorentz transformations, of man’s ability to transcend the mundane physical world sold to us by stodgy scientists. Possibilities for time travel through wormholes, astral projection, and, yes, teletransportation, to name a few, were proclaimed by avant-garde thinkers. Extraphotonic velocities do not invalidate Einstein’s Relativity Theory, they proclaimed, but enable it to embrace a space much larger than the physical one we know. Had they been correct, some of us would have considered trading in our credentials as quantum mechanics for dilithium crystal expertise.
Dr. Gamble holds degrees in nuclear and mechanical engineering and wrote the thriller “Zeroscape.”