Polarization Synchrotron. Credit: Singleton, et al., via Current.com
Polarization Synchrotron. Credit: Singleton, et al., via Current.com

Science

Device Makes Radio Waves Travel Faster Than Light

30 Jun , 2009 by

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A scientist has created a gadget that can make radio waves travel faster than light. Einstein predicted that particles and information can’t travel faster than the speed of light, but phenomena like radio waves are a different story, said John Singleton, who works at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The polarization synchrotron combines the waves with a rapidly spinning magnetic field, and the result could explain why pulsars — which are super-dense spinning stars that are a subclass of neutron stars — emit such powerful signals, a phenomenon that has baffled many scientists.

Singleton said the polarization synchrotron basically abuses radio waves so severely that they finally give in and travel faster than light. This may be what happens in pulsars, as well.

“Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars that emit radio waves in pulses, but what we don’t know is why these pulses are so bright or why they travel such long distances,” Singleton said. “What we think is these are transmitting the same way our machine does.”

The device consists of a 2 meter-long gently curving arc of alumina (a dielectric material), with a series of electrodes fitted at regular intervals along its length. Applying a sinusoidal voltage across each electrode and displacing the phase of the voltage very slightly from one electrode to the next generates a sinusoidally-varying polarization pattern that moves along the device. By carefully adjusting the frequency of the voltage and the phase displacement the researchers say they can make the wave travel at greater than the speed of light. However no physical quantity of charge travels faster than light speed.

And beyond explaining what has been a bit of a mystery to the astronomical community, Singleton’s discovery could have wide-ranging technological impacts in areas such as medicine and communications, he said.

“Because nobody’s really thought about things that travel faster than light before, this is a wide-open technological field,” Singleton said.

One possible use for faster than light radio waves — which are packed into a very powerful wave the size of a pencil point — could be the creation of a new generation of cell phones that communicate directly to satellites, rather than transmitting through relay towers as they now do.

Those phones would have more reliable service and would also be more difficult for hackers to intercept, Singleton said.

Speedy radio waves could also revolutionize the computing industry. Data could be transferred more quickly, and if used in semiconductors, it would mean faster caches and the ability to communicate across separate pieces of silicon nearly instantly.

In the health field, faster than light radio waves could be in extremely targeted chemotherapy, where a patient takes the drugs, and the radio waves are used to activate them very specifically in the area around a tumor, Singleton said.

Read the paper on the Polarization Synchrotron.

Sources: Current, Geek.com, Roland Piquepaille’s Technology Trends

By  -        
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.



29 Responses

  1. Dave Finton says:

    I’ve heard of this phenomenon before, and it should be noted while the waves travel (or appear to travel) faster than light, information that can be transmitted by these waves cannot (it goes regular light speed or slower). Therefore, we’re not seeing a breakdown of the laws of physics here, nor is this really all that new an idea. It’s probably just a new implementation.

  2. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Agreed. The speed of light is a fundamental limit on causality. No causal signal or information can travel faster. In this case what is travelling faster than light is a phase, but not information.

  3. Maxwell says:

    Is’all greek to me as I don’t understand much of anything about this or how it violates causality and laws of the universe to find loopholes in Einsteins theories.

    What I don’t understand most tho is how something can be moving faster than the speed of light, and we are aware of this somehow, but that something carries no information (when its existence is information).

    Is this just a quirky thing that happens on a bench or can we someday look forward to FTL Morse code from mars?

  4. Greg says:

    This article is very confusing as written. The paragraph about using this phenomenon to speed up data processing in computers clearly indicates that this can be used to convey information faster. Even if only a portion of the wave is moving faster than light speed, that is still significant. Even though the signal itself cannot carry information the signal itself can be the information. If it’s delivery can be varied in any particular way then that variance can be translated into a message very easily. Granted such a message would not be secure but that isn’t always the point. Perhaps we are beginning to see the advent of “subspace communication” or ftl messaging.

  5. Astrofiend says:

    “What I don’t understand most tho is how something can be moving faster than the speed of light, and we are aware of this somehow, but that something carries no information (when its existence is information).”

    It’s existence could be thought of as providing information – i.e. Does this radio wave exist? > I can detect it > Yes it does. > OK – that provides me with information.

    However, what we are interested in here is the transmission of non-random information from one place to another. To do this, you have to modulate the signal somehow to allow the wave to carry information. Here it gets technical, but suffice it to say that the modulated wave packet travels more slowly than the phase velocity of the wave in question.

    It gets very involved with a lot of subtle points. It confuses and trips up many an intelligent physicist. I certainly don’t too much beyond the basics…

  6. Maxwell – try this thought (or real) experiment:

    Take a laser pointer, and point it at the moon.
    Next, swing the laser so it traverses the moon in about a 1/100 of a second. (that’s equivalent to about one complete revolution of your hand every 3 seconds).

    The spot of the laser pointer is moving across the lunar landscape at approximately the speed of light!

    Want to go faster? either swing your arm faster, or aim for Mars…

    Just like in this device, no information is transmitted from one side of the moon to the other.

    (Just thought of another – if you pre-program the audience, you can make a stadium wave move faster than the speed of light too!)

    Ben

  7. Maxwell says:

    On the causality thing, I don’t think it would be a violation. The speed of light is fast but its not instantaneous.
    I’d figure a signal could be faster, blisteringly faster, and still never arrive before it was sent. It would simply arrive before a light based signal did.

    We are not the center of time any more than we are the center of the universe.

  8. Dave Finton says:

    Greg: but that’s just the problem; at no point does this process push information even a tiny bit faster than light. The phase that this article describes can only transfer information about one part to the Universe to another at the speed of light or less; no faster. This article is very misleading about the wording it uses in addition to the implied result it present. This article may as well be about the invention of a perpetual motion machine.

  9. Dave Finton says:

    I know there’s a good article out there that states that Special Relativity and FTL imformation transfer cannot co-exist but my Google-Fu is failing me tonight. Basically, if Special Relativity is true, the FTL information transfer cannot be, and vice versa. What the argument boils down to is that Special Relativity dictates that the receiver would get the signal before the transmitter sent it, and can do something to disrupt the signal before it is sent by the transmitter, thus preventing the receiver from getting the signal, etc, etc. That would obviously violate casuality and create a paradox, which would make the scenario impossible.

    Can anyone help me find that article? Parts of it got math-y, but it was a very good description of the problem posed by FTL information transfer.

  10. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    This is the kind or article that you either disregard or perhaps glance through to see how the original informants are trying to mess with their readers mind.

    Note that the paper is from -04, which means that the research has emptied out the possibilities of their setup. Since the research isn’t interesting they are probably trying to wake interest by bloviating on technological possibilities, which in turn also seems to have awoken little interest.

    I see that many have anticipated much of the rest of my kvetch on this.

    This article is very confusing as written.

    Greg, they are trying to shuffle the cards fast. First, as CEB notes you can yourself recreate such signal sweeps. I don’t think it is meaningful to speak about the apparent speed or phase of the wavefront since you, the observer, is recronstructing global information, and elsewhere. There is no local observer! So no break with relativity, but also no meaningful way of discussing this.

    Second, AFAIU these types of phenomena is often seen in astronomy too, where for example jets seen at an angle seems to travel superluminally. The difference is, I think, that no astronomer would term it “superluminal”?!

    As for technological possibilities, it is true that electrical signals in narrow conductors limit signaling and global clock reconstructions over large circuit boards. Even in a free conductor a voltage signal would go with 2/3 of light speed due to vacuum inductance. This is why optic signaling is tried, with (directed signaling) or without fiber (omni-directional signaling).

    What these researcher have observed is a narrow lobe 1/R field, which is reminiscent of the near field behavior. For comparison a “wide” mono-lobe (spherical field) displays the well known 1/R^2 behavior.

    If it is an extended near field, which by all means is an interesting phenomena by itself, I doubt that it can be used for fast communication. Near fields close to an antenna by definition hasn’t yet coupled the electric and magnetic field. There are thus no real photons (coupled E and M field), only virtual non-observable ones and little energy transfered (thus the 1/R behavior). Signals would look different at different positions and times, and hopeless to decode.

    But even if it is instead a halfway house to a transmitted signal akin to a narrow laser “lobe” (ideally no energy leak with R at all) it can never be as effective or easy to make.

    [The reason a wide near field effect would be interesting is IMO that _that_ probably has technological applications. Near field microscopy/pattern transfer has resolution way below the wavelength of the used light. If so, this is then perhaps the only thing the press release/article gets right – perhaps these things, by stacking energy faster than it normally dissipates in confined directions, can achieve superior radio/chemotherapy.]

  11. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    @ Maxwell:

    No, it wouldn’t help to imagine a faster process, then that simply would be “light”. Einstein realized that there must be a fastest signal, and that it is tied into how space and time works. It is rather easy to identify that fields that have infinite range (which means their interactions are mediated by massless particles: EM, gravity) transmit at this speed. [“rather easy” reads, as usual, as: “I’m sure I have seen this beautiful argument somewhere somewhen, but I can’t remember or reconstruct it.” :-)]

    @ Dave:

    Unfortunately I dunno about such a good article. But I have one old link somewhere to an article how superluminal signals in general would destabilize your typical gauge field.

    Then we have computer scientist Scott Aaronson’s testable hypothesis against time travel, which would work against superluminal signaling too. If such beasts exist they could be used to deflate computer science tower of algorithmic difficulty. In other words, we would instantly know everything. We don’t, so they don’t (exist).

    That type of gedanken experiment reminds me of that old maxim, roughly and generally “space exists so that not everything happens here, and time exists so it doesn’t all happen to me”. I recently saw it attributed to Einstein, which if true would be a delicious happenstance.

  12. DrFlimmer says:

    This reminds me of quantum mechanics and the interpretation of particles being waves.
    The “particle” is made up of many waves. These waves travel with different phase-velocities and can be faster than the speed of light. But a single wave is not transporting any information about the particle. It is the group of waves that counts and the corresponding group-velocity is always less than the speed of light…

  13. Greg says:

    Thanks, this makes alot more sense than the article did. I’ll try to put this in simplified concrete terms. If such a signal could be sent over a long distance then essentially what an observer would see would be random signals and there would be no way to control the delivery to convey a message. But on second thought the observer would see nothing even though part of the waveform was sent and would only detect the signal when the rest of the wavefrom arrived at light speed.

  14. Ric101 says:

    Hmmm.
    I have always came back to the ideal in my little brain that gravity has been the one thing that does not have speed. Or….maybe it simply moves or JUST IS within the universe. It does bend light. So my question is…is gravity a phase or a wave or a particles? Or all three, it does seem to break ‘Einstein’s Rule’. Maybe. I can not be completely held down to the thought that ‘nothing moves faster then the speed of light’. I think we have just begun to figure out the physics of the universe. I do think this is a new way to come at an old ideal and should make us think…all rules can be ‘broken’. A friend of mine said once that light is massless, and gravity present mass, sort of like a rock in the middle of a fast moving stream, the water is the light and the force that stream is moving is the ‘energy…and the rock is the gravity, the water [light] does flow [bend] around it. He was trying to break the ideal down so I could understand it. He said if you are standing on that rock, nothing can move faster then that ‘stream’ , the speed of light. Until we figure out an angle, or another way of seeing the physics of light, Einsten’s rule, we thinks can’t be broken. Tho the speed of light is a hard one to break. Which swings me back to gravity. I just don’t know. Now remember everyone, you are dealing with a person with a little brain, that is now even more confused. Thanks

  15. Savino says:

    I request an Astronomy Cast about this subject!! :)

    Really, so it´s possible to send information faster than speed of light?
    As far as I know (and understood about the article) it breaks some known physical laws, doesnt it? I will read the paper and than I post what I find out…

  16. Manu says:

    When you throw a rock in water, waves carry the disturbance across the pond, in the form of a growing ring.
    If you look very carefully, you will notice that each individual wave (‘phase’) moves faster than the ring (‘group’).
    Waves appear to ‘be born’ on the inside edge of the ring, grow and move outward faster than it, then dissipate and disappear on the outside edge.
    The ‘information’ about the rock fall, as well as what energy can be harnessed from it, crosses the pond at the speed of the ring, not the waves’.
    Waves on water behave like this because the system (fluids boundary under gravity) is highly ‘non-linear’ – (= complex; as strange as it may seem, it is so difficult to calculate analytically, as to be in fact impossible).

    Light in ordinary media does not behave that way, it is ‘linear’; phase and group speeds are equal (= c in vacuum, = c/n in a medium where n is the refraction index of that medium; n>1).
    But it is possible to find, and even make, weirdly non-linear media for light, and radio-waves.
    If you can make nc!
    This is then just for phase velocity, which cannot carry information: only the group of waves does.

    The system described in this article does just that: by modifying its properties along with the passing wave, it interacts with the wave in a very non-linear way.

    Two more things about relativity.
    1- Of course, as just any other physics theory, it is only valid within its domain of tested verification, to the extent of the precision of the best observations, and until otherwise proved (‘falsified’). It may happen, and it may not.

    Until it happens, relativity is a good tool to understand the place we live, but it is not very intuitive.

    2- The notion that ‘it is not possible to go faster than light’ is over-simplified, and misses the point. It tends to lead to meaningless ‘what-ifs’.
    c is much more than ‘the speed of light’: it is the ‘space-time constant’, the ratio between time and space (which relativity states are related, and not independent as our intuition would have it).

    Light happens to travel at c (in a vacuum), because c is also a ratio between electrical and magnetic properties of vacuum, because light happens to be electro-magnetic waves (propagating vibrations of the electric and magnetic fields, just like vibrations of the surface of water propagates) and because electric and magnetic fields are space- and time-derived from each other (this was stated by JC Maxwell).

    (btw, gravity probably also travels at c, but this has not been observed yet.)

    Einstein’s idea is that c is a constant for all observers.
    This is much deeper, and in fact much more surprising, than the better-known idea of ‘no faster than c’.
    Suppose you drive a spaceship at c/4, heading for the klingon ship in front. That ship is travelling towards you at c/2. Both ships fire their laser cannons.
    Q: What will each of you, as well an an innocent bystander, measure for the speed of these rays of doom?
    A: c! All of you, for both rays of light!
    And not c+c/2, c-c/2, c+c/4, c-c/4 you would observe in a newtonian universe.
    c is really constant.

    What this actually means, is that speed is a very, very different thing from the notion we have of it.
    All that exists is a link between time and space, which is different for each observer.
    This link means that, among other things, V>c is not only impossible, but physically meaningless, for any observer.
    Think of it as a sort of rotation between observers, such as one observer’s ‘time’ becomes mingled with another’s ‘space’.

    Sorry, that was long…

  17. Dave Finton says:

    This was the best I can find so far about the whole subject. Now that I realized my previous error (I confused the terms casualty and causality [Bad Dave! No cookie for you!]), I’m finding more useful references to the whole subject.

  18. DrFlimmer says:

    …long but interesting!

  19. Manu says:

    Hey, there was a bug with > and < !

    "But it is possible to find, and even make, weirdly non-linear media for light, and radio-waves.
    If you can make nc!"

    should read:

    "If you can make n smaller than 1, then V larger than c!"

  20. lomitus says:

    I have a comment that I would like to inject here, not so much about the article as much as about a few of the comments. Repeatedly a few folks have stated that “nothing can travel faster than light” in reference to Einstein’s theories and these comments are being stated as an undeniable fact. I wanted to address this because these comments also insinuate that if nothing can travel faster than light, well then “what’s the point of even trying?” and to me this is a very sad view of things. To me attitudes such as this simply say that we’re in for a very lonely existence on this planet and that there’s really no point to any of this. After all, why even look at the stars if we can NEVER visit them…what’s the point?

    I’m not going to debate any of the science in regards to this with anyone here…I barely understand any of Einstein’s theories to begin with. I will say however that as I understand it, while Einstein was certainly right about most things, as far as I know this concept about travel and light is still a theory…it has NOT been conclusively proven beyond a shadow of a doubt yet. That said, we can’t allow ourselves to fall victim to a belief that it’s simply “not possible”. For years the “experts” swore up and down that the Earth was flat. For many more years most folks, including the experts thought it was impossible for “man to fly” let alone reach the moon…until someone proved them wrong.

    If we give up the effort based on the belief that it’s not possible, we may be sacrificing something truly great. Further, even if it turns out that it’s not possible, what other truly wonderful things could be discovered in the attempt…things that may not be discovered if we simply “give up because it’s not possible”.

    Anyways, I’m sure this isn’t going to change the opinion of any of the experts who are so positive that faster than light travel isn’t possible…they have gotten so wrapped up in their facts, science and mathematics that they have forgotten how to dream. For the rest of you though, please don’t give up “the dream” simply because others don’t think it’s possible. We have to dream of the possibilities before we can ever achieve them! Hopefully one day someone will be able to prove the experts, including Einstein wrong.

    Just some thoughts from a dreamer :-)

  21. CinIN says:

    to: Iomitus

    I’m all for dreaming but it has been determined experimentally that a particle moving at a velocity close to the speed of light is much more massive than one at a lower velocity. So the closer you get to c the more massive it becomes and the more energy it takes to go faster until takes infinite energy as you get infinitely close to c.

    Face it, Relativity describes the way the universe works.

  22. DrFlimmer says:

    @ lomitus

    Dreaming is good! It can lead you to very exciting things. And space travel would, indeed, be a great thing.

    The problem here is, as CinIN already states, SR (special relativity) is proven without any doubts. Especially particle physics experiments have shown its effects to be real. Even such a different theory like quantum mechanics relies on SR; you need SR to achieve the correct explanation of electrons in an atom – and this has been proven, too! We must face it: SR is right and faster-than-light-travel is not possible in the conventional way.
    Btw: Theoretically the warp-drive of Enterprise could work! One major problem could be to put thirty solar masses into the space ship and keep it from collapsing into a black hole. But as a professor once stated: “Theoretically it works. How to build it is up to the engeneers!” 😀

  23. Dominion says:

    I’m hesitant to open this can of worms but then curiosity killed the cat. I’m not a proponent of the EU theory but am intrigued by some of what it suggests. Is faster than light speed possible according to EU? Where is Anaconda when you need him?

    I can’t believe I really just typed that…

  24. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    The spped of light is not really a property of light, but of spacetime. The speed of light is where there is zero distance in spacetime (space + time), and massless particles such as photons travel along these paths or geodesics.

    Phase terms can travel faster than light. Even stranger quantum entanglements can exist simultaneously. Two charged and spinning particles in an entangled states may be separated by a huge distance. If one particle is in a region with a magnetic field that particle will exhibit a precession. This is the basis of MRI. Now the other particle far removed and with no magnetic field will also precess!

    Can there be a speed up of information because a phase travels faster than light? Surprisingly yes, but under certain conditions. This is the basis for quantum computers, where the entanglement of states can quantum compute in a log(time) compared to a classical computer. There is a hitch though. There has to be a classical signal transmitted to read the output of the quantum computation.

    With the case of the laser pointer suppose it points at various spots on the moon. These are specific little pulses of codes and the pointer hits detectors so there is no speed of light connection between them. Each of these little detectors then processes the information and then communicates to some “hub.” In that sense you can actually have a faster communication of information. Yet it has to be remembered that no information actually travels faster than light.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  25. johnconway says:

    This article confusing too much to me. First all all original paper was already 5 years old. Why you writing article as if this letter is quite new one? Sencond “polarization synchrotron” is not way to sending meaning data by faster than light. In short this article is not crrect by physically speaking and it looks like yellow journalism. I am sorry to say to use a such a words because of your article is always very good.

  26. Greg says:

    According to what Lawrence B. Crowell wrote, a pulse of light sent ftl would be detectable. If you could power your laser pointer sufficiently and make it accurate enough, one could send pulses to specific locations to a detector array and the arrangement of those locations would convey the message. Over short distances this would not matter, but over many light years it would speed up messaging considerably.

  27. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Ouch, that is not exactly what I said. You can send a phase FLT, or one can change the pointer of a laser so the spot on a target moves faster than light. The motion of this spot is not a causal propagation of information. Yet one could send a signal to distant detectors on the moon, with different phases, and these detectors then process their information and relay it to a central region. There will be a speed up of information processing, even though information has NOT actually propagated faster than light.

    Quantum computers exploit nonlocality of quantum entanglements in a related way to speed up the processing of information. The architype is the controlled-NOT gate which can process entangled quantum bits.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  28. SuperRel says:

    To lomitus,

    You sir are not a dreamer you are a visionary. I agree with your line of thinking. I have an explanation of why this device works as it does. You may be interested in seeing it. Please go to this Internet site, Super Relativity.org. At this site read the article How to Build a Warp Drive using SR Theory. It will explain the mechanics of the discovery talked about in the article above. It discusses the principle idea of what I call the Slip Wave Field.

  29. evan_rose says:

    I don’t understand why this finding is not being taken more seriously. Although I do not believe this damaged Einstein’s theories in any way (as his theory only applies to objects with an existential mass, and not waves), I think it is worth noting that these waves can be used to send information, even if they can’t contain information.

    Take for example, fiber optics. The idea behind fiber optics is not that light can store information and then send it from one node to another, but rather that the light’s presence (or lack there of) can represent a number in binary.

    Couldn’t the same idea be applied to radio waves, allowing us to send information faster than fiber optics allows us, and beyond that, we can send it through space, rather than only in network cables?

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