ďWe donít allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,Ē says
A neutrino walks into a bar.
ó Joke circulating on the Internet
The world as we know it is on the brink of disintegration, on
the verge of dissolution. No, Iím not talking about the collapse
of the euro, of international finance, of the Western economies,
of the democratic future, of
the unipolar moment, of the American dream, of French banks,
of Greece as a going concern, of Europe as an idea, of Pax
Americana ó the sinews of a postwar world that feels today to be
I am talking about something far more important. Which is why
it made only the back pages of your newspaper, if it made it at
all. Scientists at CERN, the European high-energy physics
consortium, have announced
the discovery of a particle that can travel
Neutrinos fired 454 miles from a supercollider outside Geneva
to an underground laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy, took less
time (60 nanoseconds less) than light to get there. Or so the
physicists think. Or so they measured. Or so they have concluded
after checking for every possible artifact and experimental
The implications of such a discovery are so mind-boggling,
however, that these same scientists immediately requested that
other labs around the world try to replicate the experiment.
Something must have been wrong ó some faulty measurement, some
overlooked contaminant ó to account for a result that, if we
know anything about the universe, is impossible.
And thatís the problem. It has to be impossible because, if
not, if that did happen on this Orient Express hurtling between
Switzerland and Italy, then everything we know about the
universe is wrong.
The fundamental axiom of
theory of relativity is the absolute prohibition
on speed faster than light. Einsteinís predictions about how
time slows and mass increases as one approaches the speed of
light have been verified by a mountain of experimental evidence.
As velocity increases, mass approaches infinity and time
dilates, making it progressively and, ultimately, infinitely
difficult to achieve light speed. Which is why nothing does. And
nothing ever has.
Until two weeks ago Thursday.
Thatís when the results were announced. To oversimplify
grossly: If the Gran Sasso scientists had a plate to record the
arrival of the neutrinos and a super-powerful telescope to peer
(through the Alps!) directly into the lab in Geneva from which
they were being fired, the Gran Sasso guys would have ďheardĒ
the neutrinos clanging against the plate before they
observed the Geneva guys squeeze the trigger on the neutrino
Sixty nanoseconds before, to be precise. Wrap your mind
around that one.
Itís as if someone told you that yesterday at drive time
Topeka was released from Earthís gravity. These things donít
happen. Natural laws donít just expire between shifts at
Not that there arenít already mysteries in physics. Neutrinos
themselves are ghostly particles that travel through nearly
everything unimpeded. (Thousands are traversing your body as you
read this.) But that is simplicity itself compared to quantum
mechanics, whose random arbitrariness so offended Einstein that
he famously objected that
God does not play dice with the universe.
Aphorisms donít trump reality, however. They are but a frail,
poignant protest against a universe that often disdains the most
cherished human notions of order and elegance, truth and beauty.
But if quantum mechanics was a challenge to human
sensibilities, this pesky Swiss-Italian neutrino is their
undoing. It means that Einsteinís relativity ó a theory of
uncommon beauty upon which all of physics has been built for 100
years ó is wrong. Not just inaccurate. Not just flawed. But
deeply, fundamentally, indescribably wrong.
It means that the ďstandard modelĒ of subatomic particles
that stands at the center of all modern physics is wrong.
Nor does it stop there. This will not just overthrow physics.
Astronomy and cosmology measure time and distance in the
universe on the assumption of light speed as the cosmic limit.
Their foundations will shake as well.
It cannot be. Yet, this is not a couple of guys in a garage
peddling cold fusion. This is no crank wheeling a perpetual
motion machine into the patent office. These are the best
researchers in the world using the finest measuring instruments,
having subjected their data to the highest levels of scrutiny,
including six months of cross-checking by 160 scientists from 11
But there must be some error. Because otherwise everything
changes. We shall need a new physics. A new cosmology. New
understandings of past and future, of cause and effect. Then
shortly and surely, new theologies.
Why? Because we canít have neutrinos getting kicked out of
taverns they have not yet entered.