Einstein was wrong? Fire up the Falcon!

This article has been updated to correct the value of the speed of light, which, as several comments point out, was listed incorrectly .

Let me start off by saying that I’m a huge fan of Albert Einstein. He put forth almost all of his theories about how the universe works doing nothing other than working things out in his head. In his head!

There he was, working as a junior examiner in the Swiss Patent Office, scribbling down the laws that make up the universe in his free time. Amazing. He didn’t have fancy scientific instruments, and yet he blazed a new trail that we’ve followed for more than 100 years. The level of intelligence he possessed must have been greater than that of anyone who ever lived. And, incidentally, many of his theories have been put to real-world tests, and all have stood up to modern scrutiny.

So it was with mixed feelings that we get the first inklings that one of his most important theories might be wrong.

Basically, Einstein’s theory of special relativity states, among other things, that nothing can move faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, which is 299,792,458 meters per second.

But recently, something did. At least we think it did. Although it has yet to be verified, the data looks pretty clear-cut. Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the largest physics lab in the world, shot neutrinos, which are subatomic particles, 454 miles from Switzerland into Italy. This was a race with neutrinos against light. Given that nothing can move faster than light, it was a shock when the neutrinos arrived 60 billionths of a second sooner.

The margin of error in the instruments has been calculated to 10 billionths of a second, so the speedy neutrinos handily defeated the speed of light. Nobody wants to contradict Einstein, and thus almost everything we believed about physics over the past century, so scientists are moving very slowly to verify these results, which could take six months. An American lab that can run similar tests is scheduled to be brought back online in a few years, so these tests and others might even be repeatable outside of CERN.

Personally, I think this is going to be verified. And I’m happy about it. Despite my admiration for Einstein, I never really liked the theory of special relativity. That one theory made both “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” impossible, because no real space exploration, and certainly no space empires, could ever exist without faster-than-light travel.

Take our own little backwoods solar system. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, at 4.2 light years away. Under Einstein’s rules, that is the shortest time we could ever get there, even if we could move at the speed of light. And it’s a red dwarf star, so we probably wouldn’t find anything interesting there anyway.

There are currently 26 known stars within 12 light years of Earth, but it’s not like they are all along a road in the same direction. We would need 26 different spacecrafts to get to them all within 12 years at the speed of light. Otherwise, there would be a lot of timely backtracking added to those numbers.

It’s not like we are anywhere close to even baseline speed-of-light travel. But if this experiment is proven correct, it means that there are no laws to hold us back. The universe is our oyster, just waiting for us to develop the technology to properly explore it. So you can have your rocket-powered flying cars. I want my Millennium Falcon

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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