Thursday, April 3, 2014

Will we ever… travel faster than the speed of light?

Will we ever… travel faster than the speed of light?

Einstein said it is impossible, but as Jennifer Ouellette explains some scientists are still trying to break the cosmic speed limit – even if it means bending the laws of physics.   

"It is impossible to travel faster than light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off."  Woody Allen, Side Effects.

Last summer, a small neutrino experiment in Europe called OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion tRacking Apparatus) stunned the world with a preliminary announcement that it had clocked neutrinos travelling just a few fractions of a second faster than the speed of light. The news even briefly overshadowed the far more recognizable Large Hadron Collider’s ongoing hunt for the Higgs boson.

Despite careful hedging by scientists, the popular imagination jumped right from neutrinos to a viable spacecraft for fast interstellar travel. After all, the prospect of faster-than-light (FTL) travel has been a science fiction staple for decades, from wormholes and Star Trek’s original warp drive, to the FTL “jumps” used to evade the Cylons in SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot. It takes years, decades, centuries even to cross the vast expanses of space with our current propulsion technology – a realistic depiction of the tedium of space travel in entertainment would likely elicit the viewer equivalent of “Are we there yet?”

So the OPERA announcement was bound to generate excitement, even if the neutrinos in question were only moving nanoseconds faster than light – hardly sufficient to outrun the Cylons, but nevertheless faster than c, the cosmic speed limit set by Albert Einstein back in 1905.

Unfortunately, the euphoria was premature: the OPERA results were incorrect, thanks to a calibration error. The culprit: a faulty cable connection in the GPS system used to time the neutrinos along their journey. That killjoy Einstein wins again.

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