Beta particles going faster than light speed?

On September 2011, there were headlines around the world that scientists at CERN had found neutrinos that traveled faster than light; it was headline news as it would mean a violation of relativity theory, something rather serious in physics. It was later found that mistakes were made due to some loose cables. So there is no violation – nothing can exceed the speed of light in vacuum according to relativity theory.

But there is a simple way to settle, once and for all – conclusively – if anything can travel faster than light. It is well known that no particles, including electrons and protons, has ever been detected to go faster than the speed of light within particle accelerators; they go almost a few parts per million below the speed of light, but never exceeding it. But these particles are accelerated and energized through the electromagnetic forces. We don’t select such particles. We select particles that are energized by the nuclear forces.

Radioactive beta decay has been known and studied since the 1920’s. One type would have an unstable heavy nucleus decaying releasing high energy electrons – originally named beta particles. Unlike within particle accelerators, these electrons are energized directly by the nuclear binding energy from within the nucleus. These electrons have an energy distribution that may be from 0 to 1.16 MeV. If relativity theory is not violated, such electrons would never be able to go faster than light. On the other hand, if relativity theory is violated, then any electron that has energy greater than 1 MeV would have a speed of about 2c – twice the speed of light – based on the old kinetic energy formula of 1/2 mv².

But until now, no such experiment has ever been done to measure the speed of such beta particles using the direct time-of-flight method. It would be interesting to have such an experiment done to convincingly settle the question if anything can travel faster than light.

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Chan Rasjid.

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