Monday, 28 November 2011

"We don't serve neutrinos in here!"...A neutrino walks into a bar

Neutrinos going faster than the speed of light? Is it possible and, if it is true, what are the implications?

Hey guys. We have all been listening to the claims that neutrinos can go faster than the speed of light but many of the media explanations have been confusing or just plain wrong so I will explain:
Let me start by explaining what a neutrino is. A neutrino (which means "small neutral one" in Italian- thank you wikipedia) is a subatomic particle. They are very similar to electrons except they are not charged, because of this they are not affected by electromagnetic forces and can therefore move through mass almost unaffected. It was disputed, but mostly accepted now, that neutrinos do have mass, although it is extremely small, essentially making it massless. Neutrinos are expressed with the Greek letter nu, ν, and there are three types, each of which is like an electron, or the larger versions of electrons, the muon and the tau. The three types are the electron neutrino, νe, the muon neutrino, νμ, and the tau neutrino,  ντ. For most of the experiments we are looking at it is mainly the electron neutrino that is being talked about. 
Now lets talk about the speed of light. As you will know if you read my first The Irregularity of Time post, the speed of light is the same no matter what speed the source of the light or the observer is moving at. This leads to some strange equations that are the backbone of the special theory of relativity. Like when, in the aforementioned post, we came to the formula:
t'=t√(1-  v2  )
Which meant that the closer to the speed of light an object moves the slower time moves for it, and once it reaches the speed of light, time comes to a halt. The
√(1-  v2  )

in the equation turns up many times in special relativity, even appearing in the famous equation E=mc2. This equation is not as simple as it seems. The m does not simply represent mass, it represents this formula:
m=mo √(1-  v2  )
mo is the rest mass of the object. This shows that as an object increases in velocity, its mass increases too. The closer the object moves to the speed of light the larger its mass gets, and once it reaches the speed of light its mass becomes infinite. We also know, from my Is Infinity Possible post, that ∞ x anything is always ∞ so an object moving at the speed of light has infinite energy.

Now for the experiments: We first heard about this experiment in September, it was plastered all over the newspapers, with headlines boasting a disproving of everything that Einstein ever stood for and that the world was going to collapse etc etc. You see, a lot of what Einstein did, mainly his theory of relativity, relies heavily on the fact that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe. As I mentioned before, in his equation E=mc2, the m stands for:
m=mo √(1-  v2  )
So if something was travelling faster than the speed of light, you would have to have the square root of a minus number on the bottom, an impossible idea, at least in the physical universe (I am not an advanced enough mathematician to go further into this). Therefore if something can move faster than the speed of light, this theory cannot be true. However there are situations, though unlikely, in which these equations do not apply. If relativity is true then these results will instead drastically change our view of neutrinos or possibly prove string theory, but more on that later. The neutrinos were created at CERN and shot through 454 miles of mountain, because, as I said before, neutrinos can pass through matter, before hitting a detector at the INFN-Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy. The time measured for the neutrinos to cover this distance was 60 nanoseconds quicker than the time it would have taken light to travel it. After the initial excitement people became sceptical, despite the 16000 times the test was done. The objection that held the most ground was that the neutrinos, which decay, that were used were particularly long lasting ones which could produce errors in the results. To correct any problem this could have caused, they changed the way the neutrinos were created so that they lasted for a short time. Strangely this second experiment showed the same result as the first. The researchers are now asking for other teams to do the same experiment. All of these results are particularly strange because when tracking supernovas in the past, neutrinos have been shown to be moving slower than the speed of light.

One of the biggest revolutions that could come from this experiment is that it could provide at least a small amount of proof towards a new scientific theory called String theory. String theory states that subatomic particles are not zero dimensional but are in fact one dimensional vibrating strings. The calculations in string theory work, but only in a space that has not only our four dimensions, which is called a membrane, but an additional six. The idea of ten dimensions can be very strange, especially so because we can not even see the forth one. Luckily, a man called Rob Bryanton has started a project to explain the ten dimensions. He has written a book about it. On his YouTube channel he has two videos covering the ten dimensions, here is the first:

And the second is here.
He is also doing individual videos going into depth on each dimension. I would really recommend checking out his channel.
Anyway, I got a little off topic, some string theorist are taking the results of the neutrino experiment as evidence of this. The idea is that the neutrinos may not be actually traveling at, or faster than, the speed of light, but, because of the remarkable circumstances, are moving a certain distance, and then taking a shortcut through another dimension, and then popping back into our dimension at a different location. This does not have any proper proof, accept for the strange times, but it is an idea which could hold water. String theory is not yet proven and not all physicists agree on it so we can only take this with a pinch of salt.

I hope you liked this post, I will keep looking for other things to do with this and other physics or mathematical news. You can hear about all my new posts or any interesting things I found, on my Twitter. Thank you for reading and I hope I shed some light on this confusing subject.


  1. what if time itself accounts for the 96% thats missing in our universe? what if it has a messenger particle? I would call it, Chronos

  2. I enjoyed thus post and i would love the explanation to be quantum tunnelling in a higher dimension!
    The most plausible explanation for this anomaly is experimental error inasmuch as the anomaly can represents a measuring error between emitter and detector of less that 10cm in 750kilometres!
    I'm a chartered mining surveyor and have used lasers to measure distances. Also geodetic surveying techniques are probably less accurate than the experiment demands.

  3. Thank you for reminding me, I completely forgot to put that in! I will be updating it soon.
    I agree with you, I would love for there to be some sort of revolutionary reason for these results but sadly it seems like it may just be a silly mistake.
    I am really glad you liked the post! Please feel free to subscribe/follow/mention me and I would really like any ideas you have for new posts I could do.

  4. Hi Ned
    Now following you on Twitter. Thanks for the reciprocal follow.

    As you ask for ideas, have you got anything to contribute to the question "What is Time?"?

    I've never got my head around it properly but here are two of my blog attempts to describe this wierd phenomenon:

    Is time a dimension?

    A subjective view of time


  5. Thanks

    I think I will write about that in two weeks time, as I am writing about the Higg's boson this week.

    Those will really help me, thanks. A friend of mine has also been thinking about this, and did a presentation on it. So, I am really looking forward to writing about it.

  6. Hey, just came across your blog, great stuff! Subscribed. And thanks for mentioning my project. Over the last six months I've been releasing videos that are very specifically about each of the dimensions, starting with the second and going all the way to the ninth, building on the same logic used in the animation you're showing here but going into much greater depth. starts things off.
    Enjoy the journey!
    Rob Bryanton