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Speed of light broken? Yawn

by Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

The breathless headline of the UK's Telegraph website seems to say it all: 'We have broken the speed of light.'

The story, taken from an upcoming article in the New Scientist, describes the claim of two physicists - Gunter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen - from the University of Koblenz, Germany, who say they had used a process called photon tunneling to make microwaves reach their destination "instantaneously."

As Nimtz told the New Scientist: "For the time being, this is the only violation [of special relativity] that I know of."

Then again, maybe not.

The concept of quantum tunneling - whereby a quantum particle like an electron or a photon sneaks through a seemingly impassable barrier - is not new. (The process, which is way complicated once you peel the initial layer of the onion, essentially involves the indeterminacy of quantum particles - that they live in a world of high probabilities instead of absolutes - and that just because a photon shouldn't pass through a barrier doesn't meant it won't.)

Nor is the notion that these changes of state often appear instantaneous, or light-speed-breaking, a new notion.

Who doesn't want to write the story "Scientists break speed of light." In fact (full disclosure) we've done it before, after scientists made the announcement in a peer reviewed Nature article. We weren't the only ones, either.

There have already been a couple of attempts (here and here) to explain the phenomenon, though by no means is it an open and shut case.

Even the New Scientist treated the most recent claim, which has yet to be peer reviewed, with some caution. The press release in advance of the article, to be published Saturday, is here.

But as is often the case when discussing physics in the mainstream, Einstein and the speed of light are tempting targets. We're talking about a scientist who's had his brain analyzed and taken on a road trip.

So for now, we're taking this revelation with a grain of salt and will await more concrete results. In other words, not so fast.

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