Physics

After extending Einstein’s theory of relativity to greater than light velocities, the laws of physics alter

 three-dimensional (right) graph shows the relationship between three different velocities: v, u and U, where v is the velocity of a second observer measured by a first observer, u is the velocity of a moving particle measured by the second observer, and U is the relative velocity of the particle to the first observer. (c) Hill, Cox

three-dimensional (right) graph shows the relationship between three different velocities: v, u and U, where v is the velocity of a second observer measured by a first observer, u is the velocity of a moving particle measured by the second observer, and U is the relative velocity of the particle to the first observer. (c) Hill, Cox

When last year scientists at CERN reported how neutrinos traveled a few tens of nanoseconds faster than the speed of light, the whole scientific community was left in shock, since it defied even the most elemental restriction of modern day physics, a corner stone without which physicists would have to rebuild the Standard Model. Still, for some researchers, even after the whole event was disproved on account of a measurement glitch, were intrigued about the possibility of traveling at faster than light speeds; a range of “what ifs” surfaces. Two researchers at University of Adelaide sought to find out what would happen to Einstein’s special relativity theory if it wasn’t limited by the speed of light, and mathematically described their findings. Apparently, in an environment where velocities greater than the speed of light exist, the laws of physics are dramatically altered.

Einstein’s special relativity theory, first pronounced in 1905, states that  speed is relative. A moving observer will register an object’s velocity with a different value than that registered by a stationary observer. Also, special relativity postulates that as your travel with a higher velocity, time dilation occurs. Remember the famous twin paradox? One twin stays on Earth, while the other orbits the planet in spacecraft. After many years, the twin from Earth would have aged more.

Special relativity, however, limits the relative velocity of two objects (A and B) when their speeds approaches that of light. Apart from Newtonian limit, velocities are not additive quantities, so the difference velocity between A and B is not equal to their relative velocity and particularly has a smaller absolute value. However, Professor Jim Hill and Dr Barry Cox in the University’s School of Mathematical Sciences have developed new formulas that allow for travel beyond this limit. Of course, these formulas aren’t practical in the world, but provide an interesting view to a world where faster than light speeds are possible.

“Since the introduction of special relativity there has been much speculation as to whether or not it might be possible to travel faster than the speed of light, noting that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that this is presently feasible with any existing transportation mechanisms,” said Professor Hill.

“Our approach is a natural and logical extension of the Einstein Theory of Special Relativity, and produces anticipated formulae without the need for imaginary numbers or complicated physics,” says Professor Hill.

Their formulas extend special relativity to a situation where the relative velocity can be infinite, and can be used to describe motion at speeds faster than light. In this new, imaginary world, the laws of physics are sensibly different, like one might expect. For instance, if a spaceship were to travel at ever increasing, faster than light velocity, it would lose more and more mass, until at infinite velocity, its mass becomes zero.

“We are mathematicians, not physicists, so we’ve approached this problem from a theoretical mathematical perspective,” said Dr Cox. “Should it, however, be proven that motion faster than light is possible, then that would be game changing.

“Our paper doesn’t try and explain how this could be achieved, just how equations of motion might operate in such regimes.”

Both Cox and Hill have confidence in human ingenuity to surpass the light barrier, as many other breakthrough managed to overcome other popular beliefs. If this will ever happen, indeed only time will tell. The findings were reported in the journal  Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

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  • EC

    I’m not a physicist or scientist of any sort, just your average person who enjoys trying to wrap my brain around such things. Can anyone tell me, if the speed of light is broken, how can we truly talk about ‘observers’ and try to graph things visually? I understand why we do: most of us rely on our visual sense 90% more than any other. I’m simply wondering if it is possible or necessary to actually do so when contemplating FTL?

  • tibipuiu

    im no physicists either, but from what I can tell, you can’t grasp things like this visually, not in familiar terms anyway – actually it might be impossible. This is what mathematics is for. These equations, even Einstein’s general relativity theory, doesn’t discuss objects, but variables.