Einstein Can Rest Relatively Easy

Intel Science Fair Finalist discusses the theory that neutrinos can travel faster than light.

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A finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search Competition, Jordan Cotler, 17, developed a cryptography protocol that permits the detection of eavesdroppers.

This past September, scientists from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, published data suggesting that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light. The announcement prompted the media to declare that Einstein's theory of special relativity had been disproven. Soon, the story about the superluminal neutrinos seemed to itself spread faster than the speed of light. Media outlets ran features about how research associated with CERN was the beginning of a new science revolution in which the foundations of 20th century physics were being overturned.

My reaction upon hearing this story was visceral disbelief followed by intrigue. The consensus among most physicists was that the results were most likely due to experimental error. I admit that I had a vested interest in Einstein being vindicated, as my Intel Science Talent Search project relies upon his theory of special relativity. I developed a relativistic quantum cryptography protocol, the security of which is in part dependent upon the principle that particles cannot travel faster than the speed of light.

My curiosity about the scientists' findings at CERN led me to read their research paper "Measurement of the neutrino velocity with the OPERA detector in the CNGS beam." Notably, in the conclusion, the authors issued the following disclaimer, which the media largely ignored:

"Despite the large significance of the measurement reported here and the stability of the analysis, the potentially great impact of the result motivates the continuation of our studies in order to investigate possible still unknown systematic effects that could explain the observed anomaly. We deliberately do not attempt any theoretical or phenomenological interpretation of the results."

Further, upon releasing its findings, the research group was quoted as saying it "hoped the physics community would scrutinize the result and help uncover any flaws in the measurement, or verify it with their own experiments."

Despite the caution expressed by the scientists, the media storm brought forth a multitude of both naysayers and believers who were all eager to offer their opinion on the findings and its implications. While the commentary ranged from insightful to ridiculous, the attention it brought had everyone from scientists to students talking about special relativity, which was a positive byproduct.

Just last month, five months after making the initial announcement of their findings, scientists associated with CERN announced that they believe their data may have been the result of experimental error. Upon reading this news, I couldn't help but smile as I recalled hearing that many years ago, when Einstein had been told about experimental evidence that allegedly disproved special relativity, he purportedly responded, "Oh, that will go away."

While scientists at CERN are continuing to investigate whether a combination of a faulty oscillator and fiber optic cable connection could have caused data error, it appears that at least for now, Einstein's theory remains sound. Nevertheless, I admire the CERN scientists' bravery in publishing data which, had it been correct, would have challenged the foundations of physics as we know it. After all, special relativity wouldn't have been developed if Einstein himself had not challenged the status quo.

I am reminded of the delicate balance between hope and doubt in science. As the great physicist Richard Feynman pointed out, doubting is a fundamental aspect of the scientific process. A scientist must doubt everything and should only have varying degrees of certainty about experimental results and theories. I also believe that a scientist must have hopehope that a new theory is right, that counterintuitive findings can prevail. It is the realization of these hopes that propels science forward toward the light of knowledge.

For now, we cannot travel faster than that light.