Eureka! Scientists break speed of light
June 4, 2000 NEC Research
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor, Times Newspapers Ltd
SCIENTISTS claim they have broken the ultimate speed barrier:
the speed of light. In research carried out in the United States,
particle physicists have shown that light pulses can be accelerated
to up to 300 times their normal velocity of 186,000 miles per second.
The implications, like the speed, are mind-boggling. On one
interpretation it means that light will arrive at its destination almost
before it has started its journey. In effect, it is leaping forward in
Exact details of the findings remain
confidential because they
have been submitted to Nature, the international scientific journal,
for review prior to possible publication.
The work was carried out by Dr Lijun
Wang, of the NEC research
institute in Princeton, who transmitted a pulse of light towards a
chamber filled with specially treated caesium gas.
Before the pulse had fully entered the
chamber it had gone right
through it and travelled a further 60ft across the laboratory. In
effect it existed in two places at once, a phenomenon that Wang
explains by saying it travelled 300 times faster than light.
The research is already causing
controversy among physicists.
What bothers them is that if light could travel forward in time it could
carry information. This would breach one of the basic principles in
physics - causality, which says that a cause must come before an
effect. It would also shatter Einstein's theory of relativity since it
depends in part on the speed of light being unbreachable.
This weekend Wang said he could not give
details but confirmed:
"Our light pulses did indeed travel faster than the accepted speed
of light. I hope it will give us a much better understanding of the
nature of light and how it behaves."
Dr Raymond Chiao, professor of physics at
the University of
California at Berkeley, who is familiar with Wang's work, said he
was impressedby the findings. "This is a fascinating
In Italy, another group of physicists has
also succeeded in
breaking the light speed barrier. In a newly published paper,
physicists at the Italian National Research Council described how
they propagated microwaves at 25% above normal light speed.
The group speculates that it could be possible to transmit
information faster than light.
Dr Guenter Nimtz, of Cologne University,
an expert in the field,
agrees. He believes that information can be sent faster than light
and last week gave a paper describing how it could be done to a
conference in Edinburgh. He believes, however, that this will not
breach the principle of causality because the time taken to interpret
the signal would fritter away all the savings.
"The most likely application for this is not in time travel but in
speeding up the way signals move through computer circuits,"
Wang's experiment is the latest and
possibly the most important
evidence that the physical world may not operate according to any
of the accepted conventions.
In the new world that modern science is
beginning to perceive,
sub-atomic particles can apparently exist in two places at the
same time - making no distinction between space and time.
Separate experiments carried out by Chiao illustrate this. He
showed that in certain circumstances photons - the particles of
which light is made - could apparently jump between two points
separated by a barrier in what appears to be zero time. The
process, known as tunnelling, has been used to make some of
the most sensitive electron microscopes.
The implications of Wang's experiments
will arouse fierce
debate. Many will question whether his work can be interpreted
as proving that light can exceed its normal speed - suggesting
that another mechanism may be at work.
Neil Turok, professor of mathematical
physics at Cambridge
University, said he awaited the details with interest, but added:
"I doubt this will change our view of the fundamental laws of
Wang emphasises that his experiments are
relevant only to
light and may not apply to other physical entities. But scientists
are beginning to accept that man may eventually exploit some of
these characteristics for inter-stellar space travel.
Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Ltd.