August 20, 2007 Exceeding the speed of light may not be impossible according to claims reported by New Scientist. The debate surrounds an experiment by Günter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen of the University of Koblenz, Germany, in which photons were propelled faster than the speed of light in a process known as quantum tunnelling. But does this really defy the 186,000 miles per second (300,000 kps) speed limit arising from Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity? In the weird world of quantum mechanics, where very little makes sense, it seems that it’s down to a matter of interpretation.

The research by Nimtz and Stahlhofen involved sending microwaves through two glass prisms to investigate quantum tunnelling – a process in which quantum particles violate the laws of classical physics by traversing gaps that they should not be able to pass through. In observing this phenomena the researchers conclude that the photons travel much faster than the speed of light – so fast in fact that it couldn’t be measured.


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The popular interpretation might lead to the conclusion that the ultimate cosmic speed limit has been broken, but as explained by Alan Boyle at Cosmic Log, it’s more a question of how these laws are conceived given that the weird behaviour of quantum particles tend to elicit loopholes in the Theory of Relativity. Part of this problem lies in the fact that light waves are massless and therefore don’t fit within the parameters of the 186,000 miles per second rule.

Like many aspects of quantum mechanics it just shouldn’t happen (take for example the ability of certain sub-atomic particles to react to interference with its quantum “partner” even when they are separated by large distances) but in a world full of “known unknows”, things aren’t about to get any simpler.

For further reading visit New Scientist or see Nimtz and Stahlhofen’s Research Paper entitled Macroscopic violation of special relativity.