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Not So Fast: Scientists Make 'Faster Than Light' Claim Again, But Was Einstein's Theory Really Broken?


"impressive in a very abstract physical science kinda way."

Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology claim to have broken the speed of light theory. But this claim is all too familiar after researchers last year said they shot neutrinos from CERN in Switzerland to the OPERA facility in Italy faster than the speed of light and the study was later found to have flaws.

(Related: Shock study: Speed of light broken, challenges long held fundamentals about the universe)

With that in mind, NIST and others are treading lightly, not saying they are ready to send Einstein's special theory of relativity packing, but still claiming they found a way to break what Gizmodo calls the universal speed limit.

The NIST team published research in late April in Physical Review Letters reporting it had created "superluminal" pulses of light. PC Mag explains this as the team getting a short burst of light from one point to another faster than 299,792,458 meters per second. So, here's how they created a "loophole" around Einstein's long- maintained theory:

The technique works because of the way light travels in bursts, "as a sort of (usually) symmetric curve like a bell curve in statistics," according to the science journal. Nothing can make the leading edge of the curve go any faster than the speed of light, but it's possible to "re-phase" or skew the "main hump" of the pulse backwards and forwards, meaning it can be made to arrive nanoseconds faster than it would without interference.

PhysOrg (via PC Mag) explains that this does not debunk Einstein's special theory of relativity. Gizmodo calls it a "mathematical trick" but does acknowledge that it "is impressive in a very abstract physical science kinda way."

Even still, there is an application for this research, PhysOrg reports, the scientists are hoping to explore: quantum discord. Quantum discord explains mathematically how "quantum information is shared between two correlated systems." NIST is hoping to see how these short bursts of ultra-fast light could be used for transmitting quantum information.

Featured image via Shutterstock.

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