No. Uh-uh. Nope. Nuh-Uh.

I’ve received any number of emails from excited friends pointing me to articles in the news saying that particles have been discovered moving faster than the speed of light. Thanks everyone! My initial gut-response to the whole thing has been as given in the title of this post. My measured, scientist-response has been “this is extremely unlikely”. You see, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to me at all, and I expect that the scientists involved will at some point find an error, or other scientists will fail to reproduce the experiment. But, let’s see what happens. The great thing about science is that it is not about what people believe. It is about demonstrating phenomena with reliable, repeatable experiments. (The experiments were done by the OPERA collaboration, and their preliminary paper is here. I don’t need to point to the news articles since every news outlet has a bit on it.)

It’s funny, I’ve recently been writing about this in a part of the graphic novel. Somehow I think that the speed of light is presented too much as a speed limit in popular discourse, and so people naturally keep thinking that there’s some way of violating the law, like you can on the highway, or that some things are not subject to that law, like motorcycle cops, or people in a hurry to get home to watch Madmen, etc… I don’t expect this to be terribly clear in the short time I have to type this between this and that, but I think things are better thought of not in terms of a speed limit, but rather in terms of the fact that it all has to do with the meaning of what space and time really are, at a fundamental level. Space and time work together in such a way so as to give meaning to things like position, and time, and how those things can change, giving us things like speed, acceleration, etc… Getting the laws of physics to work out nicely and be the same for everyone, regardless of their state of motion, leads to Relativity, which in turn leads you to realize that if you can get to the speed of light and go past it (which might not be what is implied in these experiments), space and time just stop really making sense. So it is not so much that you can go faster than the posted speed on the highway, if you try hard enough, but that if you were to try to go faster, the highway would stop making sense… it would, in a sense, have no meaning. (The alternative is that you take the retrograde step of admitting that there are some frames of reference for observers that are more important or special than others… That seems like a step in the wrong direction to me.) But anyway, since we don’t know exactly what the proposed mechanism might be whereby such faster than light particles can go faster than light in the reported experiments, it is too premature to worry about what it all has to say about the structure of space and time and so forth. My point in this paragraph is that ultimately, I think that discussing things in terms of speed limits is always going to lead to people wanting to “break the speed limit”, and so such stories capture the imagination.

Annoyingly, these sort of things get reported in a way that I think is not helpful. What is happening now is that everyone is talking about this only because editors decided that it is a chance to do the “overthrow the establishment” story, so in this case, “Einstein was wrong” is the mantra. This gives the impression that science proceeds in this dramatic “out with the old and in with the new” fashion, and that is all that is worth reporting. In reality, great science proceeds by building upon what has gone before, so if you are going to demonstrate that the speed of light is not a maximum, you have to explain how that fits in with all that has gone before, explain why it has not been noticed before, and explain how the entire framework of Relativity that lies at so much of the science we do and test every day can coexist with this new result. Hey, perhaps they will show that. I think it is unlikely, but let’s see. (One of my first thoughts was why did all the neutrinos detected from supernova 1987A not arrive quite a while before we saw the light from it, back in 1987….? etc., etc., etc.)

But the most worrying thing for me is that in case there is an error found and the result does not hold water (I’m not saying that will happen, only that I expect it likely) there will be no reporting in those same press outlets that it was an error after all, and so we’ll end up with yet more confusion about basic science out there, and so I’ll have to add “wasn’t the speed of light shown to be not so special?” as yet another question I have to stumble over while trying to explain something else.

Oh well…


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23 Responses to No. Uh-uh. Nope. Nuh-Uh.

  1. Tommy says:

    I’m pretty firmly in your camp with your beliefs. To be fair, most people from OPERA seem to be saying much more conservative things than the press (as is typically the case). They haven’t been able to explain the finding, but they are by no means claiming it’s conclusive. My biggest pet peeve is the reporting of a 6-sigma discovery. That doesn’t mean anything at all for systematics (which is likely going to end up the case here). They also add *all* their errors (random and systematic) in quadrature. That seems a bit dippy to me, but I’m far from an experimentalist.

    As for the 1987A, that was my initial thought too, since the travel time difference would be on the order of *years* early. However, you can skirt around it a bit in one of two ways. The first is that those were electron neutrinos and OPERA I believe measures muon neutrinos. The second is to claim some energy dependence in the violation (a la Ellis and co. from earlier) since the OPERA neutrinos are much more energetic. Still, if I had to put money down, I think it’ll go away.

  2. Plato says:

    Most certainly in cosmic particle collisions we see decay, as we do at LHC in collisions. If one were to hold in perspective a configuration space(calorimeter), then what can be seen when considering Cerenkov radiation, or muon, as a relativistic interpretation of a time reaching destination?

    A tomography of the medium density through which the muons travel(Earth). ICECUBE (Ice) or SNO

    Time Dilation.


  3. Clifford says:

    Tommy – yes… likely easy money.

    Plato – …………..?


  4. Plato says:

    Comment caught in spam captcha again. Links to two images….sheesh

    A measurement of elliptic flow thus provides access to the fundamental thermalization time scale and many more things in the early stages of a relativistic heavy-ion collision.


  5. Clifford says:


    Sorry to be rude, but the spam catcher might be on to something here… 🙂


  6. Plato says:

    Sorry…..speed of light in experiments referenced do not lie……:(

  7. Jonathan says:

    I think this is a good example of the scientific method and it would be great if this aspect of the whole thing were to get reported (though it’s unlikely). There are plenty of crackpots who talk about the monolith of the scientific establishment and the dogma which means that ‘alternative theories’ get rejected out of hand – many of the same people who say that they have found a fundamental mistake in Einstein’s workings. Now that a result comes along, in fact scientists are very open to the possibility that things might have to change. We all agree that it is unlikely but we will look at the evidence and assess whether, in the end we have to change our theories. If, in all likelihood, the result is found to be a mistake then it will be another test of the theory. If it is found to be true, then we get our thinking caps on and find a theory which explains the data.

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  9. Walter Unglaub says:

    Those neutrinos should be arrested for violating Lorentz invariance!

  10. theoreticalminimum says:

    I share you view on the overdue emphasis of “breaking speed limit” in the media (and by media, I mean even in academia). However, the experiment is really making a statement about measured speed. Of course, as you mention, the repercussions of the verifiability (via replication) of this statement would be mind-bogglingly tremendous. My somewhat trained instincts tell me the “anomaly” will go, and let us hope, as you seem to worry, that people will pay attention to that too.

  11. theoreticalminimum says:

    Sorry, I meant “undue” instead of “overdue”.

  12. Plato says:

    “Many extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics, including string theory, propose a sterile neutrino;”

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    The young lady known simply as Bright,
    who could travel at speeds fast as light,
    said, “While I’m never late,
    I’m concerned that my weight
    goes to infinite mass, though I’m slight.”

  14. Clifford says:


    Hmmm… this seems to be a variant of the famous:

    There was a young lady named Bright
    Whose speed was much faster than light;
    She set out one day,
    In a relative way
    And returned on the previous night.

    – Inflicted by Arthur Henry Reginald Buller, in Punch (Dec. 19, 1923): 591.

    For a discussion of lyrics related to this (I found it randomly just now), see here.


  15. Since the original was 1923, I figured it was time for a sequel (Hollywood would have remade it a dozen times by now).
    Since you enjoyed “Off The Scale,” here are two other recent limericks of mine:

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    A percentage of people can see
    our existence in more than 3-D,
    but they seldom mention
    such extra dimension,
    Apart from mathematically.

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    An electron, so perfectly round
    it could spin without wobble or sound,
    was measured carefully
    at fixed velocity,
    but its position couldn’t be found.

    I “sign” all my limericks, since I have often seen Buller’s quoted and credited to Anonymous.

  16. Amy says:

    This article in WIRED is a wonderful follow up to all the hullabaloo of last week’s “discovery” (which I admittedly got all wrapped up in myself). The author does a good job of explaining the experiment, and putting it in perspective for a layman like me.

  17. Stevve says:

    It is also interesting to see that the Italian government take credit for building the 730 km “tunel” …

  18. Dean says:

    Hi !
    This is the best blog post I’ve read on the subject. It’s a sensational claim, and I can’t imagine it stands the scrutiny.
    But by the time its sorted out (3 years or so?), the news will sound banal and not even reported. Well, I guess we had to have something to replace the pioneer anomaly that was fairly well put to rest this year.

  19. Hi Clifford. In the age of emergent gravity and dualities, you take a very conservative stance. Not about limits but the meaning of space-time? Sure, if you are talking about Kantian a priori, correct anyway, but the space-time we perceive and measure may be far removed from that fundamental level. To base your foundation on a symmetry that quite usually arises in all kinds of condensed state systems seems a little silly. Since you seem to write some book there addressed to lay people, maybe you should first rethink before you add yet another layer to the huge heap of same-same relativity drivel. Maybe my take on this can help:
    I will explain in another post to come next week why one should perhaps even have expected faster than light phenomena to show up especially with neutrino physics.

  20. Plato says:

    Layman wondering. Forgive me if I have made any mistakes.

    Sascha Vongehr( already mentioned in the article, nothing can travel into a past light cone, which is assured by the fact that that past light cone simply does not exist anymore according to the fundamental bulk time.

    The Bulk space “is” the past light cone, as well as the future?

    Sascha Vongehr:If the effect stays, the following considerations will become important.

    2.More energy means longer jump distance implies in turn an earlier arrival time.

    Is there not backreaction in proton/proton collisions to consider “shock wave like” as Cerenkov? Like “the sound” of billiards balls.

    “Here’s an analogy to understand this: imagine that our universe is a two-dimensional pool table, which you look down on from the third spatial dimension. When the billiard balls collide on the table, they scatter into new trajectories across the surface. But we also hear the click of sound as they impact: that’s collision energy being radiated into a third dimension above and beyond the surface. In this picture, the billiard balls are like protons and neutrons, and the sound wave behaves like the graviton.” Savas Dimopoulos


    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    When the general public hears about
    A breakthrough in scientific research
    They want to add their voices to the shout,
    So as not to feel they’re left in the lurch.
    That they have opinions, there is no doubt.

    They’ll foist themselves into the dialogue,
    When something sensational’s put in print.
    Though their comments reveal they’re in a fog
    Without having the slightest clue or hint,
    It won’t prevent them posting to the blog.

    Most often, all they can add is their moan:
    “Why can’t science leave well-enough alone?”

  22. Plato says:

    Even Gardeners can be poet scientists, as well as, work on Wall St?

    Nice flower arrangements.:)

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