Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Was Einstein wrong?

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Media outlets across the globe recently reported on an experiment in which subatomic particles travelled faster than the speed of light. If true, the findings would nullify Einstein’s theory of relativity. But is it correct to say that Einstein was wrong? Jennifer Kirkey, an Instructor of Physics and Astronomy at Douglas, sets us straight on the matter.

By Jennifer Kirkey

Science is an evolutionary activity.

In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton came up with three laws of motion. Those laws are still being taught in physics courses around the world. They are still valid – for objects moving at speeds much slower than the speed of light.

Einstein built on those laws, realizing that things change once you approach the speed of light. (By the way, the speed of light is 300,000,000 metres per second, or 1,070,000,000 kilometres per hour.) One of the basic principles of Einstein's physics is that nothing can go faster than this speed. If an object is given enough energy to move very fast, that object gets heavier and heavier until it would take an infinite amount of energy to move it at the speed of light.

This doesn’t mean Newton was wrong. Classical laws of motion are still valid – as long as objects are moving at slow speeds. Similarly, scientists have measured Einstein's laws precisely, and up until now, nothing has ever been detected as moving faster than the speed of light. This speed limit is an essential part of Einstein’s physics, and that physics is the basis of our current understanding of the universe and how it operates.

So when an experiment at the European Centre for Nuclear Research reported that researchers have detected some particles that are moving faster than light, this generated a lot of interest – and skepticism.

Einstein's theory does an excellent job of describing how things behave as they move close to the speed of light. Proof that something can move faster than that would be revolutionary. And who knows what will be the result of a revolution? That is what is so exciting about being a scientist. We do not know exactly where our innovations will lead us.

Basic research in physics has given us things such as transistors and lasers, which led to a world where you can carry a computer in your pocket and talk to people all over the world. Where will new science lead us?

Who knows?

Will there be a way to build on the current laws of motion under new circumstances so that humans beings can move faster than light?

Who knows?

Scientists do hope that there will be a way for us to travel faster than the speed of light, and maybe visit other stars in a reasonable amount of time – some fraction of a human’s lifetime – but until there is strong experimental evidence verified by a number of different teams of scientists from around the world, we will remain skeptical.

So was Einstein wrong?

No. Or, to be correct, not yet. There is a multitude of strong experimental evidence to show that Einstein’s laws are valid. Scientist will not say that Einstein was wrong until there is much more experimental evidence.

Read what other physicists have to say about this in the Scientific American.