Talk about a story!
One lab in the world — of tens of thousands — says it has evidence that would sunder a notion physicists hold dear to their hearts: there is a particle that moves faster than the speed of light.
And it has evidence delivered from, not one, but two experiments! Two!
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!
After working in an applied maths lab for three years, I can tell you how much a pair of experiments are worth: jack squat. You have to run these experiments dozens, if not hundreds, of times in order to validate claims. And they have to be confirmed by third parties too. It’s part of the scientific process, and it’s worked for hundreds of years.
But let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. There are basically three (seemingly boring) explanations for these reports:
- There is a particle that travels backwards in time
- The principles of relativity need to be rewritten, OR
- Those scientists are off their rockers and the experiment is totally boned
Let’s take a look at the first possibility for a second.
Courtesy of those principles of relativity we have this special property called time dilation. As an object in space moves closer to the speed of light, time moves more slowly for them. If you spend your days sprinting at about nine-tenths the speed of light, you’ll age half as slowly as everyone else.
As you run faster and faster, approaching the speed of light, time slows for you even more. There’s a handy equation for time dilation:
Messy, right? But take a look at that bottom-right term — that’s how fast you are moving divided by the speed of light. As long as you don’t exceed the speed of light, you end up with a perfectly reasonable calculation.
When you move faster than the speed of light, you end up with a negative value in that square root, which returns an imaginary number. Suddenly you are mucking around with complex numbers — which have to be addressed in an almost completely different matter than real number — and in the end you end up with something which essentially travels from point A to point B in negative time.
Yes: an object that moves backwards in time. Mind blown yet?
As cool as that sounds, what you’ll have to remember is that these equations have been around for a long time. Since the inception of relativity, pretty much: Einstein completed his theory of special relativity, which we have since expanded upon, in 1905. That’s more than a century of hardened physics and mathematics that have built off and helped validate those theories.
Sure, relativity is a very new field, and we still can’t quite reconcile everything with quantum mechanics (an equally weird but insanely necessary branch of physics). But there’s a lot more evidence that suggests those guys around the rest of the world know their science.
Just ask Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who has essentially become the face of physics for the popular media.
Either way, I won’t be convinced until I see that experiment repeated, with the same results, at least a thousand times in different labs around the world.
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