European researchers said they clocked an oddball type of subatomic particle called a neutrino going faster than the 186,282 miles per second that has long been considered the cosmic speed limit.
The claim was met with skepticism, with one outside physicist calling it the equivalent of saying you have a flying carpet. In fact, the researchers themselves are not ready to proclaim a discovery and are asking other physicists to independently try to verify their findings.
"The feeling that most people have is this can't be right, this can't be real," said James Gillies, a spokesman for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, which provided the particle accelerator that sent neutrinos on their breakneck 454-mile trip underground from Geneva to Italy.
Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen according to Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity — the one made famous by the equation E equals mc2. But no one is rushing out to rewrite the science books just yet.
It is "a revolutionary discovery if confirmed," said Indiana University theoretical physicist Alan Kostelecky, who has worked on this concept for a quarter of a century.
Stephen Parke, who is head theoretician at the Fermilab near Chicago and was not part of the research, said: "It's a shock. It's going to cause us problems, no doubt about that — if it's true."
Even if these results are confirmed, they won't change at all the way we live or the way the world works. After all, these particles have presumably been speed demons for billions of years. But the finding will fundamentally alter our understanding of how the universe operates, physicists said.
Einstein's special relativity theory, which says that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, underlies "pretty much everything in modern physics," said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment. "It has worked perfectly up until now."
France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research collaborated with Italy's Gran Sasso National Laboratory on the experiment at CERN.
CERN reported that a neutrino beam fired from a particle accelerator near Geneva to a lab 454 miles (730 kilometers) away in Italy traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light. Scientists calculated the margin of error at just 10 nanoseconds. (A nanosecond is one-billionth of a second.)
Given the enormous implications of the find, the researchers spent months checking and rechecking their results to make sure there were no flaws in the experiment.
A team at Fermilab had similar faster-than-light results in 2007, but a large margin of error undercut its scientific significance.
If anything is going to throw a cosmic twist into Einstein's theories, it's not surprising that it's the strange particles known as neutrinos. These are odd slivers of an atom that have confounded physicists for about 80 years.