These are the things that they’ll be nervous about. By my calculation, the neutrino would win the race by 18 metres, and a time of 60 nanoseconds. So they must know the distance between Cern and Gran Sasso to much better than 18 metres, and they must measure the time to much better then 60 nanoseconds.
I don’t know exactly how they’ve done that. Of course there hasn’t been an actual race. You would have to bore a hole all the way for the light beam to travel through. The neutrinos however can travel through the rock.
Neutrinos. They are tiny, very light particles that are produced very abundantly in the centre of the sun, although these ones weren’t. They have a very tiny mass. The Nobel Prize for physics a few years ago was given to the person who proved their mass wasn’t zero. It is much lighter even than the electron. They are a necessary by-product of the process which generates energy in the sun.
So why didn’t Einstein know about these neutrinos?
In Einstein’s time, in the early 20th century, understanding of elementary particles was rudimentary.
So what would he make of all this?
I don’t think he’d be so arrogant as to think his ideas were set in stone. We do have a problem with relativity theory and gravity, for example. Everything’s not done-and-dusted in theoretical physics, though you’d have been hard-pressed to find anybody who thought this experiment would have disproved it all.
So why can’t something go faster than the speed of light?
Because it would violate the laws of cause and effect. Something could go back in time and witness the moment of its own creation.
But these neutrinos have only gone a little bit faster than the speed of light. Wouldn’t you have to go a lot faster to do that?
No, not strictly, no. It would take a long time to get there, because you’re only going that little bit faster. You might well die of old age before you did. But the idea is that, as soon as you start travelling faster than the speed of light, you are moving through time.
The idea that you could get into a rocket and go back in time is a long way off: it is merely the theoretical possibility that there is something that can move faster than it. We don’t really have any option but to accept that this is not possible. It’s sewn in to the theory of the universe. If special relativity is true and something can travel faster than the speed of light, then you can go back in time.
Does it make time travel possible?
Well it makes it possible for those neutrinos. They are the most elusive particles in the universe. The fact that there is something in space time that has this feature is enough to upset the theory.
Are there any practical implications?
Well not now, but if it is true, then the law of cause and effect is no longer sacrosanct. If you insist that cause and effect must be true, then Einstein’s theory of space and time is wrong. The idea that anything can go back and violate the law of cause and effect is so repugnant to scientists that they would have to ditch Einstein’s theory and find something else that makes it sacrosanct again.
Einstein completely overturned Newton’s ideas. This discovery, if true, would be to Einstein’s theory of relativity what Einstein’s theory was to Newton.
Do you think the scientists have got this right?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. When I listen to science stories, when really interesting things come up, they get out in to the media. I bet these scientists would have liked to have been able to sit on it until they’d got independent verification. Lots of things like this happen and don’t turn out to be true. There are many more false alarms than truths.
They’ve got to know this distance to an absurd accuracy. Measure the neutrinos’ speed to a ridiculous accuracy.
Even if you’ve got a brilliant team working really hard, which I’m sure they have, you still can’t know. If the experiment turns out not to be true it’ll be interesting to see what they did wrong.
People will be sceptical until it has been independently verified, which you can only do by using some completely different piece of apparatus, a completely different experiment, to get the same result.
So could someone actually go and kill their grandmother?
Well, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson said a very good argument against the possibility of time travel is that we’ve never met any time travellers. If someone in the future had done it, someone would have come back.