According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, it would require an infinite amount of energy to propel an object at more than 186,000 miles per second, and that nothing—under any circumstances—can exceed the speed of light.
However, Dr Gunter Nimtz and Dr Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, say they may have breached that key tenet of the Special Relativity theory by causing light to defy it’s own speed limit.
The scientists were investigating a phenomenon called quantum tunneling, which allows sub-atomic particles to break apparently unbreakable laws, when the physicists claim they propelled photons faster than the speed of light.
Nimtz told New Scientist magazine: "For the time being, this is the only violation of special relativity that I know of."
Other scientists—while not doubting the pair’s results—argue that it would be naive to assume the phenomenon automatically violates special relativity, depending on how one chooses to interpret the data.
In either case, the faster than light phenomenon has raised a lot of mind-bending questions about the nature of the universe. In theory such an occurrence on a wider scale could allow for all kinds of strange events, including time travel and instantaneous traveling between distant locations.
To see how far they could make photons tunnel, Nimtz and Stahlhofen coupled two glass prisms together to make a cube 40 centimeters on its sides. Since photons tunnel most readily over distances comparable with their wavelength, the physicists used microwaves with a wavelength of 33 cm - long enough for large tunneling distances yet still short enough that the prism can bend the photons’ paths.
As expected, the microwaves shone straight through the cube, and when the prisms were separated, the first prism reflected the microwaves. However, in accordance with theory, a few microwave photons also tunneled across the gap separating the two prisms, continuing as if the prisms were still sandwiched together.
Nimtz and Stahlhofen found that the reflected microwaves and the few microwaves that tunneled through to the second prism both arrived at their respective photodetectors at the same time. This suggests an ultra-fast transit between the two prisms. In fact, it was so much faster than the speed of light that the experimenters couldn't measure it.
The pair also found that the tunneling time, if there was any, did not change as they pulled the prisms further apart. But because tunneling efficiency drops off with distance, Nimtz says that they were not able to observe the effect across distances greater a meter.
According to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a particle's energy and the time it spends in any one place cannot both be known with absolute precision. This means particles can sometimes slip over a barrier if the time they spend traversing that barrier is short enough. According to the physicists, quantum tunneling is a fairly common phenomenon in the quantum world, and is part of many of the processes we take for granted.
"In my opinion, tunneling is the most important physical process, because we have it in radioactivity and we have it in nuclear fusion," Nimtz says. "The temperature of the sun is not high enough to organize regular fusion of protons into helium [without tunneling]. Some people are saying that the big bang happened because of tunneling. Recently, many people have argued that processes in biology and in our brain are based on tunneling."
The physicists hope that future research will reveal useful applications of these findings. If so, humankind may be in for more mind-blowing revelations about the way things work.
Or maybe tinkering with these weird principles will just blow up the universe instead: "Hey, what happens if we..." *blip*
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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