Fermilab will chase supposed faster-than-light particles

September 26, 2011

Download Story
(WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Gina Rameika shows a particle detector from MINOS, one of the lab's neutrino experiments.

Scientists at west suburban Fermilab are already working to scrutinize a potential scientific discovery widely believed to be impossible. European physicists announced last week they clocked something traveling faster than the speed of light. If true, the observation from the European lab CERN would turn much of physics inside out, as the speed of light is thought to be an absolute limit on how fast anything in the universe can travel.

The MINOS experiment at Fermilab may be the best equipped in the world to test CERN’s results, and its spokesman says they’re hopping to it.

“Obviously it’s a very high priority,” said Robert Plunkett. “Anything that makes a statement about the foundations of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, that’s one of the two underpinnings of all 20th century physics. So it has to be scrutinized and of course it’s urgent to attempt to reproduce the results as soon as possible.”

Plunkett said his team is already at work refining some of their old results to see if they agree with the CERN findings. Then, upgrades should allow the Fermilab scientists to get much more precise measurements within two or three years.

The CERN results concern neutrinos, an extremely light particle that passes right through most matter. Scientists say there are lots of uncertainties around the creation of these particles in the lab, making it difficult to keep accurate time in a race between neutrinos and light. Plunkett and others say they are withholding judgment until someone verifies the observation.