Now that the neutrino has been caught speeding, we may have to redraw our vision of the universe. Moving beyond Einstein’s theory of relativity, we may need to consider the possibility that we live in a universe made of more than just three spatial dimensions.
If independently confirmed, the discovery recently made at the CERN research institute in Geneva about neutrinos traveling faster than light will force us to transcend the axiom of the speed of light as an absolute, constant feature of our physical world, allowing for extra dimensions, which until now nobody had observed (although some physicists have been suggesting their existence for about a century).
According to Brian Cox, professor of physics at Manchester University and a researcher at CERN, admitting the existence of extra dimensions is one way to explain what seems impossible in the face of what we know: that nothing can top the speed of light (approximately 186,282 miles per second) and that light, like anything else, moves along in a space defined by three coordinates only.
Remember the X, Y and Z coordinates we were taught to draw in school? We may have to add more letters to the equation in order to get a finer picture of the world we dwell in..
Those three axes have proven valid since Pythagoras’ days, holding their ground through the two main revolutions in physics sparked in the modern era first by Newton and later by Einstein.
Truth be told, Einstein did introduce a new element to the equation, namely time. And by fusing space and time in one single whole, he came up with the concept of spacetime, envisioning a cosmos where the three spatial dimensions change their properties in relation to time. Even in such a vision though, spatial dimensions per se stick to the number three.
It’s not like Einstein got it all wrong, but rather that his model of what we call the physical domain is not good enough to depict the finer structure and workings of the universe.
So, if the results of the experiments conducted at CERN are substantiated by other researchers working on neutrinos at the Fermi Lab near Chicago or at the Tokai J-PARC institute in Japan, we won’t have to throw out the E=mc2 formula, but rather expand on it.
That’s how progress occurs in the field of physics.
Both Newton’s and Einstein’s formulas are sufficient to describe our world for our basic needs. A carpenter will, for example, not need more data than length, depth and height to construct a cupboard. But this may not be enough when an engineer wants to devise a new GPS system for our mobile phones and needs to work within the framework of relativity to adjust for changes in the time needed for signals to go back and forth from the phone to communications satellites orbiting the planet.
So, why do we need extra dimensions? Well, we don’t need them, actually. Not yet, anyhow. But as the neutrinos’ behaviour seems to indicate, there may be much more to learn about our universe than we already know. And should we manage to discover that extra dimensions exist, enmeshed in the texture of space, one day–a still very distant day in the future–our mega-modern GPS mobile may be able to teleport us from here to Mars–like in the Star Trek movies–or even allow us to travel back in time.
All this may sound preposterous. But it could become reality if we discovered that we actually live in a space made up of many space dimensions. Which, again, is one of the ways to explain why neutrinos can travel so fast. If we consider some theories, professor Cox concedes, it is conceivable to think that neutrinos “can take shortcuts through extra dimensions”.
The first to come up with the idea of extra dimensions was the German mathematician Theodor Kaluza who, in 1919, sent Einstein a paper showing that Einstein’s special relativity formulas could easily accommodate not just three but four spatial dimensions. Later, Kaluza and other mathematicians worked on similar ideas coming up with different versions of a manifold dimensional space. Some of these theories envision up to ten dimensions.
Now in order to have an idea of how such extra dimensions can exist, think of a carpet which would ideally be made out of a single thread of wool.
Working the thread in a chain-stitch fashion, one can create very long chains, which eventually can be folded into complex structures. Each link of the chain represents a point, or a one dimensional world, but we know that by folding the chain and juxtaposing the folded parts we add an extra dimension, obtaining a two dimensional world. Then by folding the chain again below or above we add one more dimension still, which makes for the carpet’s thickness, and we get to a three dimensional world.
Now we may think of the fourth dimension as an added sewing stitch made with some strands of the thread we used to make the chain. This sewing stitch goes around each link like a ring and then stretches out to make more rings around all the juxtaposed links, connecting them in an added structure to the fabric.
Now, an ant wanting to explore the carpet will have to tread the chain going from link to link or it may cut through the bi-dimensional plane created by the first folding of the chain, but it will never be able to pierce through the thickness of the carpet. And yet a mite could do that: squeezing its very tiny body, it could move from sewing stitch to sewing stitch, taking in this way the shortest of cuts in any direction. So the neutrino traveling faster than light is like the tiniest of mites telling us that it can go through the carpet in a way no other insect can.
But of course this is only a hypothesis. One of several . After all, there is so much we don’t know about neutrinos, which have been dubbed ghost particles because until a few years ago they themselves were a mere hypothesis.
Neutrinos are among the smallest of all sub-atomic particles. Having almost no mass and being electrically neutral, they hardly interact with anything and until recently we were not even able to observe them, because they just travel through space unhindered even by the most solid rock or heaviest metal. We know there are three different types of neutrinos, we know they decay from one type to another like other particles do. But their behaviour and role in the universe, if they have one, are still unkown.
Some suggest that neutrinos may even be maverick representatives of dark matter. This being the bulk of the stuff the universe is made of, but which we cannot see (although we know it exists) because of some odd behaviour of gravitational fields and sub-atomic particles in certain conditions.
So we may well be at the dawn of a new era. But we have no clue yet as to how the story will unfold. Nevertheless the concept of extra dimensions is certainly an appealing idea .
Before succumbing to a panic attack because one of the few remaining certainties in this world turns out to be wrong, let us reassure ourselves: we do not have to do away with Einstein’s mainstay formulas. After all, Einstein proved that the Newtonian concept of absolute space does not hold water beyond a certain threshold. When we leave home every morning we still think of space in absolute terms. And if we want to find the address of a friend who moved to a new neighbourhood, first the street, then the building then the apartment, we can still rely on the old X, Y and Z coordinates.
Einstein’s theory is not fundamentally wrong. At some point we may simply learn that it isn’t applicable to a more complete understanding of the makeup of the cosmos.
Actually it would be on the basis of the theory of relativity that the super fast neutrino suggests the possibility of travelling through time.
The basic concept of relativity is that space and time, as we said, are seen as a single and coherent whole, within which space and time are so intimately related as to be inversely proportional. Thus if one stands still and does not move through space, time expands (passes) very fast, while if one moves through space, time slows down. The faster one goes, the more time gets to be compressed.
This explains the classic example of the twins A and B aging differently if A remains on earth and B boards a space ship to explore the farther reaches of our galaxy: because of relativity, when B comes back home, for A who stayed on earth time will have passed very fast, while for B who travelled so far away, time will have passed at a much slower rate. So B will be younger than A.
Ideally, if B could ride a light beam, i. e. moving at the fastest speed possible, time would stand still and B would not age at all.
Now, if it is true that neutrinos can shoot through space faster than light, it is mathematically conceivable that they could travel through time.
This opens the way to what common sense sees as a paradox: if we only could shoot a beam of neutrinos in one direction and then reflect that beam straight back to the source, the neutrinos could arrive at the source before they departed.
All this in theory, of course. But history does teach us that humans have managed to turn many theories into reality. When Leonardo Da Vinci drew his flying machines, nobody would have believed that 400 odd years later the Wright brothers could make a machine fly.
So even if it can be confirmed that neutrinos travel faster than light, it’s not as if nothing were certain anymore. Knowledge is a never-ending process, like forever digging in a possibly endless pit. But, as Mr. Spock would say: there is always a way to make sense of what we see. It all just depends on how you look at it. Or better yet: into it.
And last but not least, Einstein will be proven right in that, well, everything is indeed relative.