In September of this year a piece of news was silently taking the world by storm: The speed of light was broken; Einstein was finished.
Researchers from CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland, were conducting an experiment on neutrinos that involved firing the ephemeral little particles more than 700 kilometres through the Earth to a detector in Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy. One of the lesser objectives of this experiment was to accurately determine the velocity of neutrinos — logically presumed to be some value less than C (the speed of light), long held to be the speed limit of the universe as told in Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
Upon getting their results, the CERN scientists were befuddled by the figures: the neutrinos appeared to have covered the distance 60.7 nanoseconds faster than photons would have, a value high enough that it could not simply be explained away as systematic error in the equipment. They cautiously published their results without adequate explanation for the discrepancy and invited the physics community at large to scrutinize their work and sniff out the telltale error. Rumour surrounding the result, however, immediately became a deafening murmur amongst science-elite and lay-folk alike; the neutrinos were travelling faster than light, people dared to whisper. CERN had broken Einstein.
Weeks pass, reality hits. A multitude of explanations have now been submitted by the physics community, with the predominance of them travelling at sub-light speed. One physicist in particular has even managed to offer an explanation that uses special relativity to account for the discrepancy. Very simply put, an aspect of special relativity says that measurable quantities will look different depending on the perspective from which you look at them. An example might be the curvature of the Earth: walk around the world and you will naturally deduce that you have been walking forever in a straight line, but zoom out far enough and you are forced to realize that you have been actually walking in an enormous circle the entire time. This idea in mind, physicist Ronald van Elburg of the Netherlands posits that the scientists behind the experiment did not account for the fact that half of their timing system was in orbit around the Earth and looking on the experiment from a different perspective than they were; his reworked calculations accounting for this found a total discrepancy of 64 nanoseconds, which is more than enough to account for the CERN mystery.
As was largely anticipated amongst the physics crowd, it seems Einstein has been restored to his former status as the first and last word in physics and intellectual master of the universe.
For three weeks, though, we were all ready to witness his fall from grace. We followed whatever news we could get, we read about the sneaky little particles that had rattled world-class physicists, and secretly we all hoped that nobody would be able to quite explain it — not because we dislike Einstein and his theories, but rather because it would have been the surest sign of real scientific progress over the last century. Proving Einstein inexplicably wrong, even accidentally, would have stood as one of those pivotal moments in the history of science, when everything we “know” gets completely shattered in the face of new evidence. We were all eager to watch the geek melodrama unfold before our eyes; we were ready to blow a gaping hole in the scientific canon, willing to invite new characters to step in, and waiting to embrace a 21st century way of looking at the world. As it turns out, I suppose we’ll just have to go on waiting.
But before we all go trudging back to the same boring old world that is predictably predicted by Einstein, we should pause for a moment to note that the tenets of relativity may also ultimately predict its own inevitable downfall. Although a theory may largely work well within the frame of reference it was built in, as you discover newer variables and broaden the scope of your perspective inevitably that theory will need to be reworked, if not completely rewritten. It happened to Newton’s classical mechanics after 200 years of being considered the top of the physics world, and it will happen again to Einstein. Relativity will inevitably look as dated to the physicists of 2330 as classical mechanics looks to the physicists of today.
We don’t need to disprove the theory to start taking jabs at it; relativity may never be proven “wrong,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is always going to be “right” either. History suggests the greatest threat to scientific progress is the belief that we’ve already learned everything we need to know — Socrates was executed for being too clever, Galileo and Darwin were both persecuted in their time. It’s a risky business to challenge “the rules,” even today, but the greatest minds in history rewrote the rules and often paid for it dearly. The next Einstein may already be suffering at the hands of popular opinion.
Neutrinos may not travel faster than light and Einstein may not lose his reign as nominal master of the universe just yet, but be sure to take note, all you budding theoreticians out there: his prestigious position never came with tenure, and you don’t need to wait for an opening to start applying for the job.