Sub-atomic particles apparently travelling faster than light could force a major rethink of theories about how the cosmos works and even allow dreams of time travel and extra dimensions, scientists said on Friday.
Jeff Forshaw, a professor of particle physics at Manchester University, said the results, if confirmed, would mean it would be possible in theory to send information into the past.
”In other words, time travel into the past would become possible ... (though) that does not mean we'll be building time machines any time soon”.
The international physicists who made the startling findings at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research) near Geneva said they must now be confirmed by independent research teams. The wider scientific community expressed astonishment and scepticism.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is an extraordinary claim cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees told the Reuters news agency.
CERN, also home to the Large Hadron Collider that is probing how the universe began and developed, said measurements over three years had shown invisible neutrino particles covering the 730 km to a laboratory in Italy 60 nanoseconds -- or 60 billionths of a second -- faster than light.
That reading could show that Albert Einstein, father of modern physics, was wrong when he laid down in his 1905 theory of special relativity that the speed of light was a cosmic constant, and nothing could go faster.
The new finding was recorded when 15,000 neutrino beams were pumped over three years from CERN to an underground Italian laboratory at Gran Sasso near Rome.
Physicists on the experiment, called OPERA after the initials of its formal scientific title, say they had checked and rechecked over many months anything that could have produced a misreading before announcing what they had found.
Professor Jenny Thomas, who works on neutrinos at Fermilab, the U.S. physics research centre near Chicago, commented: The impact of this measurement, were it to be correct, would be huge.
OPERA's Dario Auterio, presenting the findings to a packed and clearly sceptical auditorium at CERN on Friday, said they were of high statistical accuracy and could not be explained by extraneous effects such as seismic tremors or moon phases.
He declined to get into theoretical interpretations and told his audience of largely CERN scientists that other research centres -- Fermilab and probably Japan's T2K neutrino research team -- must now take up the baton.