Faster Than Light

Tachyon visualization
What something travelling faster than light would look like, if you could see it

But it’s not only in a Galway coroner’s court that the laws of nature have been suspended. They’re just as dysfunctional at the world’s most advanced scientific establishment – CERN.

Europe’s premier physics lab has measured particles travelling faster than light. Fancy that. This is a little troubling to them though, because for a physicist, matter moving faster than light makes about as much sense as God knocking on the door, presenting you with an iguana wrapped in newspaper, saying “Call me Susan, I have no legs for hosepipe” and turning into a forest of lemon trees. It doesn’t happen, it can’t happen, it won’t happen.

So as they make their lemonade, the boys and girls at CERN have to try to figure out where things went awry. Those particles can’t really have gone faster than light, can they? They have mass – which is a technical way of saying they weigh something – and a thing with mass can’t travel even as fast as light, never mind faster. This is because…

Well, this is because the world is a lot freakin’ weirder than it looks. You may not have noticed this – actually you couldn’t possibly – but the faster you move, the heavier you get. It isn’t detectable at the speeds even spacecraft travel at, but the effect gets more pronounced as you approach the speed of light. So pronounced in fact that if you ever travelled at the speed of light, you’d weigh an infinite amount. Which can’t be pleasant.

To make it worse, as you go faster you shrink in the direction of travel. (So much for the symbolism of the sports car then.) At the speed of light, your length front-to-back would be zero. Something with no length at all but which weighs more than the whole universe isn’t really a possible thing, so matter never can go as fast as light. The only reason light itself can manage is that it has no mass and no length to change.

Another way to think of it: The speed of light is the infinity of speed. Saying “faster than light” is like saying “more than infinity”, it’s a meaningless statement. So if this experiment showed particles of matter going from A to B in less time than light could, you’re forced to conclude that, well, perhaps A isn’t as far from B as you thought. Or maybe the particles found some sort of short cut. Or… the universe just shrunk or… something.

Those are actually genuine suggestions. Most modern theories of the universe tend to have a few extra spatial dimensions lying around; not just the Up-Down, Forward-Back and Left-Right we know, but also Hoo-Hah, Abba-Dabba and Hosni-Mubarak. Say. Maybe those extra dimensions form hidden spaces that the particles (called neutrinos) can cut through.

Or maybe not. Frankly no one knows. Any theory that accounts for a deviation from such a fundamental law has to be so darn theoretical that it may as well just be a particularly pretty form of hand-waving. Most likely explanation? They’ve simply made a mistake. They are some of the most intelligent people on the planet, they have the best lab in the world, and they’ve spent the last six months re-checking their results, but still the best explanation is that they put a decimal point in the wrong place somewhere. Almost anything is more likely than that their results are actually right.

I have a theory of my own. Of course.

CERN is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. That’s good, we expect things to be done with precision there. But in order to measure such high speeds, the neutrinos have to be sent to a target that’s some distance away. Quite a distance actually. Further than Switzerland is big. In Italy in fact.

Italy. Of course they’re getting figures that don’t reflect reality. Berlusconi is probably pocketing some of those neutrinos himself.

18 thoughts on “Faster Than Light

    1. That’s the problem with discoveries like this. Suddenly, everybody and their mother comes up with their own cockamamie theory that they thought up while in the shower.

      If you want the world to accept your theory, don’t go posting links on random blogs. Publish it in a peer-reviewed journal.

  1. That’s nice graphic of FTL travel at top of this webpage, but I don’t understand what it means. Can you add text to explain the details within it?

    1. It’s a rather speculative depiction of a tachyon, itself a wholly hypothetical form of matter that moves faster than light. A superluminal neutrino would presumably look much the same. If, you know, it wasn’t far too small and fast to see.

      I’ve changed the image to link directly to the Wikipedia article on tachyons, which uses this image and explains it in more detail, but in brief: “Because the object arrives before the light, the observer sees nothing until the sphere starts to pass the observer, after which the image-as-seen-by-the-observer splits into two—one of the arriving sphere (to the right) and one of the departing sphere (to the left).”

    2. -The real object is the faded circle moving right-to-left.

      -As it passes the observer (the dot on the chart) a Doppler-like effect creates two distorted images of the spherical object. This distortion and stretching happens for as long as the object is passing the observer. Once the object has passed the observer the shape or the distorted image becomes fixed from the point of view of the observer. This is because the visual info from the object is not fed to the observer’s eye equally in time.

      -The left hand side image, the mushroom cup, is more straighforward to understand. The mushroom moves in the same direction as the sphere, but it starts lagging in speed immediately. Still, you see it moving in the correct direction.

      -The right hand side image, the bullet, is more fun to understand. Because the sphere is going faster than light, the light from the sphere that first reaches the observer is the one that has shortest distance to travel. In other words, the light from the sphere when it is closest to the observer reaches them first, and then light from further out comes after. This means the observer sees the object moving away when in fact it had been approaching him/her.

  2. That’s nice graphic of FTL travel at top of this webpage, but I don’t understand what it means. Can you add text to explain the details within it?

    1. It’s a rather speculative depiction of a tachyon, itself a wholly hypothetical form of matter that moves faster than light. A superluminal neutrino would presumably look much the same. If, you know, it wasn’t far too small and fast to see.

      I’ve changed the image to link directly to the Wikipedia article on tachyons, which uses this image and explains it in more detail, but in brief: “Because the object arrives before the light, the observer sees nothing until the sphere starts to pass the observer, after which the image-as-seen-by-the-observer splits into two—one of the arriving sphere (to the right) and one of the departing sphere (to the left).”

    2. -The real object is the faded circle moving right-to-left.

      -As it passes the observer (the dot on the chart) a Doppler-like effect creates two distorted images of the spherical object. This distortion and stretching happens for as long as the object is passing the observer. Once the object has passed the observer the shape or the distorted image becomes fixed from the point of view of the observer. This is because the visual info from the object is not fed to the observer’s eye equally in time.

      -The left hand side image, the mushroom cup, is more straighforward to understand. The mushroom moves in the same direction as the sphere, but it starts lagging in speed immediately. Still, you see it moving in the correct direction.

      -The right hand side image, the bullet, is more fun to understand. Because the sphere is going faster than light, the light from the sphere that first reaches the observer is the one that has shortest distance to travel. In other words, the light from the sphere when it is closest to the observer reaches them first, and then light from further out comes after. This means the observer sees the object moving away when in fact it had been approaching him/her.

  3. Richard, a chara, I spent 3 months at CERN. Wish to put it on record that
    a. It’s balls
    b. Everyone knows it’s balls
    c. It will be resolved only when research funding dries up or a better news story can be invented.
    d. Sorry

  4. Richard, a chara, I spent 3 months at CERN. Wish to put it on record that
    a. It’s balls
    b. Everyone knows it’s balls
    c. It will be resolved only when research funding dries up or a better news story can be invented.
    d. Sorry

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