Last week, something truly incredible happened at CERN, the world-famous centre for nuclear research in Switzerland: very tiny objects – neutrinos – were observed to have travelled faster than the speed of light.
If the initial data proves correct, this astonishing phenomenon would undermine the theory of relativity, the cardinal rules of physics established by Albert Einstein 100 years ago.
‘As long as AutoCAD still works, what’s it got to do with me?’ you ask. As Stephen Parke of the US government-run Fermilab told the National Geographic: the existence of faster-than-light particles would wreak havoc on scientific theories of cause and effect. ‘If things travel faster than the speed of light, A can cause B, [but] B can also cause A,’ Parke said. ‘If that happens, the concept of causality becomes ambiguous, and that would cause a great deal of trouble.’ Which means this column could have caused the incident at CERN.
Here’s something equally strange to do with Einstein’s relativity rules, that has an easy-to-grasp architectural angle to boot: recent experiments have proved you age more quickly if you live in a penthouse than if you were stuck in a basement flat. Really!
Now, as you may remember from your O-levels and GCSEs (or Doctor Who), Einstein proposed that time does not flow at a steady rate, and that gravity slows down, or dilates, time. That means the pull of gravity on an object increases closer to the centre of mass, so an object on the Earth’s surface actually experiences a slightly stronger pull than one floating in the atmosphere. ‘If you are experiencing stronger gravitational pull, then your time is going to go slower,’ said study author James Chin-wen Chou of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Chou used two ultra-precise atomic clocks, and showed that lifting one clock just a foot above the other creates enough gravitational difference for the higher clock to tick slightly faster.
Is this a killer blow to dreams of high-rise living? Who wants to get old quicker? Don’t panic. Scientists note the effects are much too small to perceive directly. Just one foot height difference would age you by 90 billionths of a second – over 79 years of life. Phew!