08 October 2005

"Screw You, Einstein!" Say Scientists

In my family, we gather together once a month, have some food, play some games, and read the latest issue of Optics Express, the international electronic journal of optics. This month, the article "Tunable ultraslow light in vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser amplifier" enamored us in particular.

Scientists describe how they slowed down the speed of light to 6 miles per second. Normally it is 186,ooo miles per second. As far as I can tell, they did it by applying an electric current to a laser.

In addition to being an amazing thing, this may have important applications to technology. The field of optoelectronics explores the use of photons instead of electrons. The potential increases in computing speed and storage capacity are enormous. The Library of Congress could fit on a flash card. But first photons must move at a manageable speed at room temperature, and this experiment shows that it's possible.

Is it also possible to increase the speed of light? Physicists have proposed the existence of faster-than-light tachyons, but whether ordinary light can be made artificially faster is another "matter," so to speak.

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