The pair say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons - energetic packets of light - travelled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3ft apart.Expect to hear all sorts of bizarre stories about time travel as the news spreads, but if the scientists' claim is true and the speed of light has at last been breached, it overturns nearly a century of physics theory on which those bizarre stories are based.
If their claim is true, this could portend a revolution in physics.
An article of faith for nearly a century (and I use the word "faith" deliberately) has been the inviolability of the speed of light. According to all the particle physics produced since Einstein's theory of relativity was validated by observation (the theory that almost arbitrarily declared the speed of light to be an inviolable upper limit), the complete inviolability of the speed of light is the one thing that may not be questioned by a physicist.
An example of the faith is given in the story of John Bell, who conducted an experiment to test a wrinkle in quantum theory, producing what's been called "the most profound discovery of science."
It's been suggested there were three fundamental assumptions being tested in Bell's Theorem: causality, identity and the inviolability of the speed of light. When the experiment produced results (as predicted) that required throwing out some assumptions, what was rejected were (bizarrely enough) the first two. The inviolability of the speed of light was embraced anew; causality and identity (and logic and reason) were rejected at the quantum level;and it was heard declared by many an excitable physicist, metaphysicist, taoist and new-age astral traveller that, "Objective Reality has been refuted!"
Oh faith! An alleged shortcut to knowledge that is only a short circuit destroying reason. A faith that is now challenged by this experiment. If the experiment of those two German scientists can be both validated and reproduced, I look forward to the unravelling of a lot of silly metaphysics.
UPDATE: An extract from the New Scientist article is now online. It concludes:
Aephraim Steinberg, a quantum optics expert at the University of Toronto, Canada, doesn't dispute Nimtz and Stahlhofen's results. However, Einstein can rest easy, he says. The photons don't violate relativity: it's just a question of interpretation.Steinberg explains Nimtz and Stahlhofen's observations by way of analogy with a 20-car bullet train departing Chicago for New York. The stopwatch starts when the centre of the train leaves the station, but the train leaves cars behind at each stop. So when the train arrives in New York, now comprising only two cars, its centre has moved ahead, although the train itself hasn't exceeded its reported speed. "If you're standing at the two stations, looking at your watch, it seems to you these people have broken the speed limit," Steinberg says. "They've got there faster than they should have, but it just happens that the only ones you see arrive are in the front car. So they had that head start, but they were never travelling especially fast."