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2011's 10 Biggest Moments in Science


10
Neutrinos Might Have Traveled Faster Than Light
A CERN worker walks past a painted representation of the Large Hadron Collider on Dec. 13, 2011, in Geneva. While the LHC folks didn't discover the elusive Higgs boson in 2011, scientists did report that the search was narrowing.
A CERN worker walks past a painted representation of the Large Hadron Collider on Dec. 13, 2011, in Geneva. While the LHC folks didn't discover the elusive Higgs boson in 2011, scientists did report that the search was narrowing.
Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Every so often, a new scientific discovery utterly changes the way we think about the universe. These moments rewrite the rules, such as Galileo's 1610 discovery that other planets had moons -- and, subsequently, that Earth wasn't the center of all orbits. Such game-changing moments are rare, but you'd better believe they grab the headlines.

On Sept. 22, just such a story emerged from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). An international team of researchers on the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Racking Apparatus (OPERA) experiment claimed to have witnessed something impossible: neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light.

The OPERA team reported that the neutrinos were zipping along 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light (with a 10-nanosecond margin of error), but that's still enough to violate Einstein's special theory of relativity. If true, their measurements would overturn the so-called universal speed limit and alter the way we understand mass and energy in the universe.

For now, however, modern physics is safe. The scientific jury is still out on faster-than-light neutrinos as other experts in the field of particle physics take a close, skeptical look at the data and conduct their own independent experiments. Scientists from the United States, Japan and Europe plan to publish their own findings in the months ahead.

If the OPERA results prove false, then it was still one of the more memorable moments in science for 2011. If the results prove true, however, then it represents one of the biggest scientific moments in the past century.