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Eureka! Scientists break speed of light
 
June 4, 2000 NEC Research Institute in Princeton
 
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
 time.

 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 experiment,"
 he said.

 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,"
 he said.

 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
 physics."

 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.

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