The markets, Einstein and the speed of light

In a week when uncertainty was rife on the world’s stockmarkets, with a fall of 250 points on the FTSE yesterday and rumours that US financial giant Countrywide may fold as a result of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, some more upbeat tidings from another arena of human endeavour where uncertainty is a rather more welcome commodity.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

News arrives (at rather less than 186,000 miles per second) from the University of Koblenz that the speed of light – long thought to be a fundamental maximum – may have been beaten. And not by the finger of a panic-stricken hedge-fund manager going for the ‘sell’ button. In the course of firing microwaves through a transparent cube made of two glass prisms stacked base-to-base, physicists Gunter Nimtz and Alfons Stahlhofen claim to have observed photons exceeding the speed of light.  If it’s true, this is a pretty big deal, as no less an authority than Albert Einstein, in his Special theory of Relativity, declared such a thing to be quite impossible.

The pair claim that an effect called quantum tunnelling was responsible for their observations that some photons jumped a gap of up to 1m wide ‘instantaneously’. Now you and I might think that light crosses a 1m gap pretty much instantaneously anyway, but we’d be wrong, wrong, wrong. It actually takes a whole nanosecond to do so – that’s 0.0000000001 seconds – which in quantum physics is, well, quite a while. More than long enough to feed Schrodinger’s cat, at any rate.
So was Albert wrong? Probably not, although as with most things involving the notoriously counter-intuitive ways of quantum theory (whose most famous maxim is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) it’s impossible to be sure. But if he was, and the speed of light is not the universal speed limit that everyone thinks, it would open the door to making a great deal of science fiction into science fact. It won’t help reduce anyone’s exposure to the US sub-prime mortgage market, but at least it’s something a bit more edifying to ponder on…

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