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Oct. 12, 2011
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

SRU students study particles travel faster than light

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – At Slippery Rock University, Krishna Mukherjee, assistant professor of physics, works diligently to make sure her astronomy and modern physics students understand the wonders of the universe. She also updates her classes as new scientific discoveries come along, such as the recent claim that particles can actually travel faster than the speed of light.

           “It is potentially exciting news. It is really big news in terms of changing physics. Just a few days ago physicists said they had discovered neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light,” she said. “But,” Mukherjee warns, “we still have to take a wait-and-see attitude until others are able to duplicate the initial research.”

           “Now if the claim is indeed true, and there is not some glitch in the experiment, we may have to make some changes. Einstein's ‘Theory of Special Relativity’ is valid in flat space.  Some physicists question could the neutrinos take a shorter path that proves space has higher dimensions. This is a great time to be a student of physics. Recently the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for discovering the Universe is expanding by measuring the brightness of Supernovae. These very Supernovae also emit neutrinos that astronomers have been studying for some time. By observing their characteristics we have evidence that thermonuclear fusion is indeed the mechanism by which the sun shines,” she said.

           Such breakthroughs are not without immediate humor: The joke, “The barman said: ‘Sorry, we don't serve neutrinos.’ A neutrino enters a bar,” quickly appeared on the Internet after the scientific announcement was made. It was followed by, “Physists have long known that the only thing that travels faster than light is rumor.”

           Other physicists have called the discovery a “massive, massive event.”

           “It is hard to believe that anything can travel faster than the speed of light. It is what we have always believed, so this new discovery, it if holds, is monumental, and all of the faculty in the physics department are excited,” Mukherjee said.

           “In six months or so we will probably have a more definitive answer,” she said. “I am really anxious to hear the results, but I am keeping a jaundiced eye until the results are verified. Still, the claim is the subject of discussion in my classes. It is certainly the story all of my students have been asking about.”

Mukherjee said the researcher calculated the time through the use of satellites, “but there could be a malfunction in their instruments, so we just have to wait and see. I definitely want student to see how important it is to think it through as well as what could be the problem with the discovery.”

           Before the new information hit, the belief that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light was a cornerstone in astronomy and physics circles.

           The information came from the Gran Sasso physic laboratory in central Italy and was announced at a special seminar at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, which houses the world’s largest particle accelerator.

           A research paper describing the research was also released.

           The highly technical research timed the arrival of ghostly subatomic particles (neutrinos) sent from CERN through the Earth to the Gran Sasso lab. In timing some 15,000 neutrinos sent over a three-year period, the particles arrived 60 billionths of a second faster than expected. The experiment has an error margin of plus or minus 10 billionths of a second.

           The experiment indicates the particles traveled faster than the speed of light – 186,000 miles per second, or 671 miles per hour (299,792,458 meters per second). Neutrinos have no electric charge and can pass through almost any material as though it was not there.


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