A couple of months ago, physicists at CERN, Switzerland, claimed they had found a fatal flaw in Einstein's theory of relativity. Their findings immediately lit up the Internet with activity, created widespread worldwide debate and shook the foundations of physics. These physicists were essentially putting a noose around the neck of relativity. After some criticism, they refined their experiments this week, made more precise measurements, and still confirmed their original findings.
Originally, they found that 15,000 neutrinos outraced a beam of light, reaching the finish line 60 feet ahead of a light beam, over a distance of about 450 miles. My blog entry on November 1st, "Update on the 15,000 Neutrinos That Seemed to Outrace a Beam of Light" explained more about the original experiment and how the physicists calculated the original result.
One criticism lodged against this experiment was that the beam of neutrinos was not precise, spread out over 10,000 billions of a second. Now, they have done the experiment again, with a beam spread out over 3 billionths of a second and they still find the neutrino beam outracing the light beam. If you aren't aware already -- This is extremely bad news for relativity. According to Einstein, nothing can go faster than light, so a neutrino beam cannot possibly outrace a light beam! If this is the case - All hell breaks loose, time goes backwards and all of modern physics has to essentially be redone.
But there is still hope for true believers (like me). The weak link in all this is not the neutrino beam at all, but the GPS system used to measure the distance between Geneva and Italy. Several physicists have gone public to challenge the results and claim that the CERN group in fact miscalibrated the distance between Geneva, the GPS satellite, and Italy. Since the discrepancy is on the order of 20 parts per million, it means that even tiny errors have to be factored in.
Many physicists point out that in 1987, neutrino’s and light from an ancient supernova outside our galaxy, traveling tens of thousands of light years, reached the earth at roughly the same time. So a measurement made over astronomical distances is probably more reliable than a measurement made over 450 miles. So, relativity is down, but not out. Most physicists, I think, are still rooting for Einstein.
Disclaimer: my own research on string theory is based on relativity, since string theory builds on the foundation of relativity. So if relativity is wrong, most of my own published work goes out the window! Moral: this is how science is done. There are no sacred cows in physics. Every theory has to work every time, in any place. Physics is constantly self-correcting. Even one data point can overthrow the more established theory. But, as Carl Sagan pointed out -- "Remarkable Claims Require Remarkable Proof."