Scientists claim to break light-speed barrier

Scientists claim to break light-speed barrier

Summary: German scientists claim to have broken the light-speed barrier but analysts say, if true, any impact is still unlikely to be felt for many years.

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TOPICS: Networking
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German scientists claim to have broken the light-speed barrier, which could blow away the known limitations of modern networking, but the technology is unlikely to make it into a product--if at all--until most administrators working today have retired.

Exceeding the speed of light, approximately 300,000km per second, is supposed to be completely impossible. According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object through the light barrier.

But two German physicists claim to have forced light to overcome its own speed limit using the strange phenomenon known as "quantum tunneling."

Gunter Nimtz, one of the physicists from the University of Koblenz, told New Scientist magazine: "For the time being, this is the only violation of special relativity that I know of."

However, the scientists' claims should be treated with some skepticism until they have been investigated by the wider scientific community, according to Dr. Kevin McIsaac, an analyst at Sydney-based firm IBRS, who holds a PhD in theoretical atomic physics.

"From time to time we do hear about these interesting experiments, often by well-meaning scientists. But, until this has been validated by the scientific community, you want to treat it with some skepticism," said McIsaac.

"To date, all indications are that no information can travel faster than the speed of light. There are some experiments that indicate you can have interactions that appear to be faster than the speed of light but you still can't transmit information faster than the speed of light," said McIsaac.

The scientists set up an experiment in which microwave photons--energetic packets of light--appeared to travel "instantaneously" between two prisms forming the halves of a cube placed a meter apart.

When the prisms were placed together, photons fired at one edge passed straight through them, as expected. After they were moved apart, most of the photons reflected off the first prism they encountered and were picked up by a detector. But a few photons appeared to "tunnel" through the gap separating them as if the prisms were still held together.

Although these photons had traveled a longer distance, they arrived at their detector at exactly the same time as the reflected photons. In effect, they seemed to have traveled faster than light.

Quantum tunneling is a well known phenomenon that occurs as a direct result of the strange uncertainty which pervades nature at very small scales. It allows subatomic particles to break apparently unbreakable barriers.

Even if the discovery turns out to be real, IBRS's McIsaac isn't convinced that it could be turned into a useful product: "About 15 or 20 years ago a scientist claimed to have discovered cold fusion... but still nothing has happened. One of the big promises has been quantum computing and we still don't have it. Also, photonic computing — we still don't have that either."

"So, frankly, I would suggest that anybody who is an administrator today probably won't see this till they have retired," McIsaac said.

Quantum tunneling
To understand the principle of quantum tunneling, consider a ball being bowled up a hill. If the ball has insufficient velocity, it will not roll over the top of the hill and appear on the other side. But, if the ball was a subatomic particle, subject to quantum laws, it would also behave like a wave.

The "wave function" describing the particle would represent the probability of finding it at a certain location. This wave could extend to the other side of the hill, meaning there will always be a small possibility of the particle being detected there unexpectedly.

When this happens it is as if the particle has "tunneled" through the hill.

The effect is already used in a practical way in the scanning tunneling microscope, which can image surface features at an atomic scale and relies on the "tunneling" of electrons.

Tunneling is also involved in radioactivity and nuclear fusion. Without it, the sun could not shine, and some scientists believe the universe itself only came into existence because of tunneling.

Topic: Networking

Munir Kotadia

About Munir Kotadia

Munir first became involved with online publishing in 1998 when he joined ZDNet UK and later moved into print publishing as Chief Reporter for IT Week, part of ZDNet UK, a weekly trade newspaper targeted at Enterprise IT managers. He later moved back into online publishing as Senior News Reporter for ZDNet UK.

Munir was recognised as Australia's Best Technology Columnist at the 5th Annual Sun Microsystems IT Journalism Awards 2007. In the previous year he was named Best News Journalist at the Consensus IT Writers Awards.

He no longer uses his Commodore 64.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

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14 comments
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  • Seems unlikely

    My physics background is very distant memory but I have to wonder if they are just assuming that the photons took the scenic route. If the photons aren't reflected as expected, why would you assume that they are refracted as expected?
    kmatzen@...
  • Only one thing

    We live in North America, NOT EUROPE, ASIA, or CHINA!! (I know that's not all of them) WE DON'T USE THE METRIC SYSTEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FOOLS!!!!!!!!!!!!! We don't care what the speed of light is in kilometers!!!!!! It means NOTHING TO US! So to correct that, the speed of light is 186,000 MILES per SECOND, or 670,616,629 MILES per HOUR. Oh and I have heard of things like this and I do think it might be possible.

    C@RL
    co-eddy
    • Yea if your going to use a story from the UK zdnet

      transpose the metric system for us.. or google will explode.!
      Been_Done_Before
    • And this is why I continue to date foreigners

      Because honestly most Americans are too stubborn, stupid, fat, and lazy for their own good.

      I bet you think 30 degress C is darn chilly too.

      I am in America. I use the SI system otherwise known as the Metric system because I don't care to screw around with Acres, Rods, Furlongs, Yards, cubits, fathoms, chains, ells, span, palm, nail, inch, finger, digit, rood, bovate, virgate, jill or gill, bushel, barrel, hogsheads or any other screwy named unit of measure. I don't like dividing by two or multiplying by eight and then carrying over the two and back again. When I choose to change one measure from another, I like moving the decimal place. It's kind of nice only having to do that.

      Oh, how much longer until the United States is no longer a super power so that may be we can get over ourselves and begin to strive for greatness once again.
      nucrash
      • I've been doing a lot of work in Germany...

        and have come to the same conclusion...our measuring systems suck and need to be changed. It's too bad that the metric system is seen as "European", seemingly a dirty word these days. Just the effect on upsizing/downsizing recipes would be worth the change.
        jasonp@...
    • OK Steady Eddie

      WRONG!

      In this country we use both systems which is worse because you have to have twice as many wrenches. As we further outsource and import machine tools from Germany and Japan, we will be closer to the metric system. Right now some of these machine tools can machine in both systems. I prefer the metric system due to times 10 or divided by 10. I can visualize both systems in size so I have no problem with either but metric would simplify it. I say choose 1 system and it is guys like you that resist change. Adapt or die.

      All the meter is, is a subunit of the distance from the north pole to the equator along the curvature of the earth. It is exactly 10,000 kilometers so it is 10,000,000 meters. Everything is in base 10 to make it easier. We will get there eventually. Too bad Eddie cannot fathom that.
      osreinstall
      • RE: Scientists claim to break light-speed barrier

        @osreinstall

        There is only one major flaw in your thinking that I can think of off hand.

        Have you actually ever turned a wrench on a metric bolt ? If you had, perhaps for a living for a few years, you'd realize that metric bolts ( mainly the smaller ones ) will snap off at the head when torqued down a good bit. On the measurement side of things I personally would rather use metrics, than decimal standards. It just seems easier.

        When trying to maintain personal health however ( namely the skin off my knuckles ) Standard is where it's at. Especially high torque grade 8 applications.
        yyrkoon
    • Think again

      Yes, US routinely uses metric system, or at least part of it. Your computer works at 120 Volts, you measure current in Amps, power in Watts, time in seconds. Also, a big bottle of Coke is 2 Liters (only as an afterthought is also displayed in fl. oz.). As for fools, NASA uses metric system, Lockheed Martin does not, so that's how you burn 125 million USD lost in the Martian atmosphere.
      ats_z
    • Really?

      @co-eddy I think you're the only fool here. The metric system is a scientific system. The imperial system only complicates things and we are cursed for learning it. It has everything to do with us. Learn it, and stop complaining. And it is possible to break the light barrier, but it requires insane amounts of energy, amounts that we do not yet have. It would also probably disintergrate any massive material undergoing it.
      Nikolai75
  • Seems logical

    Worse yet, I think I have heard about this before. Not being done, but theorized. Perhaps this was in a Creighton Book or something of that nature.
    nucrash
    • All scientists

      including American ones use metric/SI units (radical)
      mrjonno
  • RE: Scientists claim to break light-speed barrier

    I have no back ground in physics and I am definitely not a scientist, I just had a curious question. If an object/matter broke through or in this case tunneled through the light barrier would there still be some sort of light possibly behind it or would it be in total darkness now because it has surpassed the light? And, would there now be a darkness or negative barrier? I may sound stupid asking these questions, again I'm not a Scientist just a Sailor in the middle of Afghanistan with some down time.
    Halv2MX
  • what are the practical applications?

    Regardless of the measuring system used, "If" this Light barrier has infact been breached, what will that imply for the rest of the world? Free energy? end world poverty and hunger? Could we now perhaps use this information to travel between the stars in a few hundred years from now? or is it all of no real consequence, other than re-writing all the school books?

    I'm asking because I'm not a scientist or a physicist, but I am intrigued to find out what the implications of this feat are, if - and I use "IF" - the science checks out?
    fateofthenation
  • double post

    double post
    fateofthenation