It’s physics Jim, but not as we know it.

Percolating the media this past week have been a whole host of articles attempting to tackle the latest CERN results that suggest it is possible for subatomic particles called neutrinos (think electrons but with no charge and almost no mass) to travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

Now the reason this is such a big deal is because “lightspeed”, according to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, is nature’s speed limit. Furthermore, according to this model, the speed of light is so important to the mechanics of nature that it is maintained for all observers (everyone and everything) no matter how fast you’re travelling. To clarify, everyday experience demonstrates that a car moving at 30mph is seen by someone standing still to be moving at roughly that speed, whereas to a cyclist travelling at 13mph about 17mph and to a car moving at the same speed to be travelling at 0mph. This is not the case with light.

Why? Well, as an observer speeds up and would otherwise begin to catch up to the speed of light nature reacts by slowing down the relative passage of time for them and thus preserving light’s original speed. This effect means that travelling fast, let alone close to the speed of light has profound consequences in the way we experience time and although this may sound more like science fiction than fact the effect is real enough that it has to be factored into calculations that allow GPS systems to accurately keep time and track us.

This relationship between the speed of light and time has become a fundamental cornerstone of 20thcentury physics and the possibility that something is able to break light’s speed limit is a huge game changer and raises curious notions of time travel, worm holes and consequences that precede their causes. That said there is a great deal more work to be done in order to
verify the validity of CERN’s findings and despite the high quality of the research that has provided the current data, physicists world wide, including those behind the research, are highly sceptical and unwilling to accept the implications without further tests.

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