Having had the little rant below I can hardly believe I read in yesterday’s Daily Mail (only just picked it up today) that CERN Physicists think they might have seen neutrinos clocking up velocities greater than light.  And once again it is only “O”- level (or if you insist GCSE) maths that is needed to check whether the claim is reasonable.  Now unfortunately I have to rely on the second hand numbers provided by the Mail so I may be doing the CERN guys a great disservice here, but I’ll take a quick look in a moment and see if I can get any hard numbers directly from CERN.  For what it’s worth the Mail numbers are as follows.

Distance between the neutrino emitter and the detector 454 miles.  How much “quicker” than light?  60 nanoseconds or 60 billionths of a second.  Now that ain’t much you know.  Light only travels 186,000 miles in a second in a vacuum, so in 60 billionths of a second it only covers 59 feet (and we’re talking about something going faster than light) so we’re talking about a distance discrepancy of something less than 59 feet in 454 miles.  This is looking more than slightly dodgy now isn’t it.  If you took the distance between the two labs over the surface of the Earth (i.e. taking the curvature into account) as 454 miles, then the shortest distance between the labs (taking the straight line path through the Earth, not following the surface curvature) is something like 453.75 miles, a difference of a quarter of a mile or 1,320 feet – quite a bit more than the (less than) 59 feet discrepancy we are looking for.

Now I’m aware that the (military grade) GPS is quite capable of giving your position on the Earth’s surface to within a few feet – but if the “early” neutrinos had taken the short route underground can we really be certain that the straight line distance between the emission point of the neutrinos and the detection point can be measured to better than 59 feet?  It doesn’t seem likely to me, so now I should go away and see if I can find what the CERN guys REALLY said as I’m sure it’s quite different (in detail) to the Mail’s version.

However – before I do go off and check this out – I’d like to make a comment.  Anyone who has done Special Relativity as a course at University or College will know where the whole idea of a speed-of-light limit comes from.  It is so fundamental and so obvious that anyone with even a small understanding of Special Relativity wouldn’t look at “faster than light” claims such as this for more than a moment.  What’s much more interesting is WHY there is this fundamental velocity limit, and why it has this particular value.  Knowing the answer to this question actually tells you something fundamental about how this Universe is put together.  In fact you will find that nothing travels faster than light in a vacuum because that is the velocity limit of the data pathways in the Quantum Computer that is generating our “Reality”.  But that is a story for another time 🙂

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