Posted 23 September 2011, by Nick Collins, The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Ltd.), telegraph.co.uk
A British physicist even promised to eat his boxer shorts on live television if it turned out to be correct.
Scientists at CERN, the world’s largest physics lab near Geneva, stunned the world of science on Thursday night by announcing they had observed tiny particles known as neutrinos travelling slightly faster than light.
The claim – if true – would be inconsistent with Einstein’s theory of special relativity, a cornerstone of modern physics which states that nothing can travel faster than light.
Researchers were so astonished by their findings that they spent months checking their data, without finding any errors that would disprove their claim, and cautiously invited the world to prove them wrong.
Reacting to the news yesterday, scientists working on the project – known as OPERA – stressed the need for the results to be checked before drawing any conclusions about our understanding of the universe.
Prof Jim Al-Khalili, professor of Physics at Surrey University, said: “The scientists are right to be extremely cautious about interpreting these findings. If the neutrinos have broken the speed of light, it would overturn a keystone theory from the last century of physics.
“That’s possible, but it’s far more likely that there is an error in the data. If the CERN experiment proves to be correct and neutrinos have broken the speed of light, I will eat my boxer shorts on live TV.”
Prof Stephen Hawking, the world’s best-known physicist, also expressed doubts, saying: “It is premature to comment on this. Further experiments and clarifications are needed.”
Others said that, while the accuracy of the experiment needs to be verified, its impact on our understanding of science and the world around us could be almost unprecedented.
Brian Cox, the TV presenter and physicist, told BBC Radio 6 Music: “If it is confirmed it will be the most important discovery in physics in at least the past 100 years.
“It is a very big deal, it requires a complete rewriting of our understanding of the universe … it is such an extraordinary claim that it is difficult to believe.”
But Dr John Costella, an Australian-based physicist, accused the researchers of making an “embarrassing gaffe” in their calculations.
In a paper published online yesterday, he wrote: “Any physicist worth even a fraction of their weight in neutrinos will be shaking their head, knowing intuitively that the OPERA result is simply wrong.”
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