Nothing travels faster than light.
There are millions of textbooks and academic papers in the world asserting this as fact. Until now, perhaps?
Scientists working at CERN, the world’s biggest physics lab, have had to ask themselves whether our understanding of the universe is fundamentally wrong. CERN’s data shows that they seem to be observing neutrinos travelling faster than light. But this is completely impossible, according to science as we understand it. In what must be one of the world’s most challenging crowdsourcing calls, they’ve gone public and said “We think this must be a mistake, but if it is we can’t find it. Got any ideas?”
The speed of light (the c in “e=mc2”) and its status as the fastest thing in the universe is the foundation of much today’s understanding of science. The idea that anything could ever break this universal speed limit is such an extraordinary notion that it recalls the moment when Galileo helped to turn science on its head – he shocked his 17th century religious masters by asserting that the sun did not go round the Earth. (For this he was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition and kept under house arrest for the rest of his life – at least CERN will be spared that kind of response!)
We often have situations in our own lives where we realise we’ve been operating under an assumption that was so deeply bedded-in we hadn’t even noticed it. The evidence of our eyes always made it look as if the Earth stayed still and the sun moved around it, so that’s what we believed: that’s just how things are, it’s obvious isn’t it? Spotting one of these assumptions in the way we behave and the way we think about our work and our goals is the first step to genuinely disruptive innovation – smashing a new path through the assumptions and clichés in our thinking and coming up with new versions of how things can work.
The last word on new perspectives has to come from the beautiful mind of author Terry Pratchett:
“Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
Update at March 2012: If you’re interested in those super-speedy neutrinos, it looks like it was all a flash in the pan. You can imagine the level of checking and re-checking that went on following that result, and scientists now know there were two flaws in the original experiments – one in the timing mechanism and another in an optical fibre connection. So Einstein’s equation survives after all.
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