Faster-Than-Light Particles Question Einstein's Theory

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Albert Einstein with his second wife, Elsa.
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THE GIST

— CERN Scientists say they have clocked subatomic particles that travel faster than light.

— Researchers called on physicists around the world to scrutinize the data.

— Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity would have to be revisited if the findings hold true.

Physicists reported Thursday that sub-atomic particles called neutrinos can travel faster than light, a finding that — if verified — would be inconsistent with Einstein's theory of relativity.

In experiments conducted between the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland and a laboratory in Italy, the tiny particles were clocked at 300,006 kilometres per second, slightly faster than the speed of light, the researchers said.

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"This result comes as a complete surprise," said physicist Antonio Ereditato, spokesman for the experiment, known as OPERA. "We wanted to measure the speed of neutrinos, but we didn't expect to find anything special."

Scientists spent nearly six months "checking, testing, controlling and rechecking everything" before making an announcement, he said.

Researchers involved in the experiments were cautious in describing its implications, and called on physicists around the world to scrutinize their data, to be made available online overnight.

But the findings, they said, could potentially reshape our understanding of the physical world.

"If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics," said CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci, a view echoed by several independent physicists contacted by AFP.

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In the experiments, scientists blasted a laser-like beam producing billions upon billions of neutrinos from CERN, which straddles the French-Swiss border in Geneva, to the Gran Sasso Laboratory 730 kilometres (453 miles) away in Italy.

Neutrinos are electrically neutral particles so small that only recently were they found to have mass.

"The neutrinos arrived 60 nanoseconds earlier that the 2.3 milliseconds taken by light," Ereditato told AFP.

Under Albert Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, however, a physical object cannot travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.