If the universe had speed limit signs, they would all read 299,792,458 meters per second. That’s the speed of light, and according to Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, this is the maximum speed that energy and matter can travel. For those of us raised on warp speed and hyperdrives, it’s easy to miss just how important and concrete this law is. It’s the central assumption of Einstein’s theory, and pretty much everything that’s been written about science for the past half-dozen decades rests on Einstein’s theory being true. Back in the 1940s, the scientific community decided to take him at his word because he was on the cutting edge of modern hairstyles and usually knew what he was talking about when it came to science, and they never really looked back.
“Look at the man’s mustache. Of course he’s an expert.”
Enter the experiment known as OPERA (Oscillation Project with three sciencey words that aren’t Earned Run Average). In September of 2011, scientists at CERN (Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva in Switzerland) shot a beam of particles 730 kilometers away to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Gran Sasso, Italy. The problem was that they showed up 60 nanoseconds early, which doesn’t sound like a big margin until you understand that in order for this to happen they would have to have traveled faster than the speed of light.
Those particles were in an awful hurry to get to a pretty boring mountain.
Come on, Italy! Didn’t we just go over this — remember Einstein? We’re pretty sure Moses even included something about this in the 10 Commandments. So obviously the entire world was a little skeptical of the discovery and wanted the tests redone. So they did, and scientists worldwide shit their collective pants with each retesting of the findings: Every single rerun produced the same results.
This recent flipping of the modern physics model on its head means that faster-than-light travel is now possible. Not for you (yet), but certain particles can now travel distances that should take thousands of years to cross in seconds. The corners of the farthest galaxies are now fair game, but the most important implication of all is that because the neutrinos travel faster than light, they aren’t affected by time the way everything in the visible universe is affected by time. This recent discovery has scientists at CERN toying with the notion of sending neutrino messages to their past selves. Though it’s likely a long way off in the future, you did hear that correctly; time travel is now a very real and attainable possibility.
Pictured: The wild-haired man who advanced our understanding of the time space continuum, and some guy with a mustache.