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Measuring Mass May Detect Faster-than-Light Particles

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Faster-than-light particles may be detected for the first time ever by machines designed to measure mass.

Tachyons are theoretical subatomic particles which always travel faster than the speed of light. Matter is forbidden, by the laws of physics, from traveling at, or above, the speed of light. As the velocity of matter increases, so does its mass, a result most famously detailed in the special theory of relativity, developed by Albert Einstein.

Neutrinos are tiny, uncharged particles produced during some forms of radioactive decay, and they are one of the least-understood of all subatomic particles. A new study suggests that neutrinos resemble the faster-than-light tachyons in several respects.

In 2011, a study measuring the speed of neutrinos reported the particles travel slightly faster than the speed of light. Those measurements were later found to be in error, the result of a loose cable within the detection mechanism.

Robert Ehrlich, a physicist who recently retired from George Mason University, believes he has developed a new method of examining neutrinos. Instead of measuring their velocities, the researcher is instead examining their mass.

Tachyons are theorized to exhibit a characteristic "imaginary mass," a square of negative mass. Particles with this unusual property speed up when they lose energy, unlike ordinary matter, which slows down. The rate at which this occurs is declared to denote the mass of a tachyon.

Ehrlich examined six independent means of examining neutrinos, including studying small variations in the cosmic background ration permeating the Universe. He has determined the imaginary mass of neutrinos is around 0.33 electron-volts, just 2/3 of one-millionth that of an electron.

The idea of neutrinos was first proposed in 1962, by physicist George Sudarshan and other researchers. Since that time, the theory has come under heavy criticism from other researchers who say the particles are forbidden by Einstein's equations. Such particles could allow the development of tachyon telephones, able to send messages back in time, in violation of relativity.

In 1985, particle physicists first suggested the idea that elusive tachyons are seen as neutrinos. If this is true, that could mean that protons may break down through beta decay at high velocities. This process would not be allowed by the laws of physics if neutrinos and tachyons are truly separate particles. Negative energy tachyons are theorized to travel backwards in time, a distinctive characteristic that could be detected by physicists under specific conditions.

A new experiment, Katrin, set to go online in 2015, could possibly more accurately measure the mass of neutrinos.

"Of course, before you try designing a "tachyon telephone" to send messages back in time to your earlier self it might be prudent to see if Ehrlich's claim is corroborated by others," researchers joked in a press release.

Investigation of tachyons and the possibility they are neutrinos was accepted for publication in the journal Astroparticle Physics

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