Faster-Than-Light Lasers Could “Illuminate” the Universe

It’s a cornerstone of modern physics that nothing in the Universe is faster than the speed of light (c). However, Einstein’s theory of special relativity does allow for instances where certain influences appear to travel faster than light without violating causality. These are what is known as “photonic booms,” a concept similar to a sonic boom, where spots of light are made to move faster than c.

And according to a new study by Robert Nemiroff, a physics professor at Michigan Technological University (and co-creator of Astronomy Picture of the Day), this phenomena may help shine a light (no pun!) on the cosmos, helping us to map it with greater efficiency.

Consider the following scenario: if a laser is swept across a distant object – in this case, the Moon – the spot of laser light will move across the object at a speed greater than c. Basically, the collection of photons are accelerated past the speed of light as the spot traverses both the surface and depth of the object.

The resulting “photonic boom” occurs in the form of a flash, which is seen by the observer when the speed of the light drops from superluminal to below the speed of light. It is made possible by the fact that the spots contain no mass, thereby not violating the fundamental laws of Special Relativity.

An image of NGC 2261 (aka. Hubble's Variable Nebula) by the Hubble space telescope. Credit: HST/NASA/JPL.
An image of NGC 2261 (aka. Hubble’s Variable Nebula) by the Hubble space telescope. Image Credit: HST/NASA/JPL.

Another example occurs regularly in nature, where beams of light from a pulsar sweep across clouds of space-borne dust, creating a spherical shell of light and radiation that expands faster than c when it intersects a surface. Much the same is true of fast-moving shadows, where the speed can be much faster and not restricted to the speed of light if the surface is angular.

At a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington earlier this month, Nemiroff shared how these effects could be used to study the universe.

“Photonic booms happen around us quite frequently,” said Nemiroff in a press release, “but they are always too brief to notice. Out in the cosmos they last long enough to notice — but nobody has thought to look for them!”

Superluminal sweeps, he claims, could be used to reveal information on the 3-dimensional geometry and distance of stellar bodies like nearby planets, passing asteroids, and distant objects illuminated by pulsars. The key is finding ways to generate them or observe them accurately.

For the purposes of his study, Nemiroff considered two example scenarios. The first involved a beam being swept across a scattering spherical object – i.e. spots of light moving across the Moon and pulsar companions. In the second, the beam is swept across a “scattering planar wall or linear filament” – in this case, Hubble’s Variable Nebula.

Artist view of an asteroid (with companion) passing near Earth. Credit: P. Carril / ESA
Photonic booms caused by laser sweeps could offer a new imaging technique for mapping out passing asteroids. Credit: P. Carril / ESA

In the former case, asteroids could be mapped out in detail using a laser beam and a telescope equipped with a high-speed camera. The laser could be swept across the surface thousands of times a second and the flashes recorded. In the latter, shadows are observed passing between the bright star R Monocerotis and reflecting dust, at speeds so great that they create photonic booms that are visible for days or weeks.

This sort of imaging technique is fundamentally different from direct observations (which relies on lens photography), radar, and conventional lidar. It is also distinct from Cherenkov radiation – electromagnetic radiation emitted when charged particles pass through a medium at a speed greater than the speed of light in that medium. A case in point is the blue glow emitted by an underwater nuclear reactor.

Combined with the other approaches, it could allow scientists to gain a more complete picture of objects in our Solar System, and even distant cosmological bodies.

Nemiroff’s study accepted for publication by the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, with a preliminary version available online at arXiv Astrophysics

Further reading:
Michigan Tech press release
Robert Nemiroff/Michigan Tech

Time Dilation Confirmed in the Lab

It sounds like science fiction, but the time you experience between two events depends directly on the path you take through the universe. In other words, Einstein’s theory of special relativity postulates that a person traveling in a high-speed rocket would age more slowly than people back on Earth.

Although few physicists doubt Einstein was right, it’s crucial to verify time dilation to the best possible accuracy. Now, an international team of researchers, including Nobel laureate Theodor Hänsch, director of the Max Planck optics institute, has done just this.

Tests of special relativity date back to 1938. But once we started going to space regularly, we had to learn to deal with time dilation on a daily basis. GPS satellites, for example, are basically clocks in orbit. They travel at a whopping speed of 14,000 kilometers per hour well above the Earth’s surface at a distance of 20,000 kilometers. So relative to an atomic clock on the ground they lose about 7 microseconds per day, a number that has to be taken into account for them to work properly.

To test time dilation to a much higher precision, Benjamin Botermann of Johannes Gutenberg-University, Germany, and colleagues accelerated lithium ions to one-third the speed of light. Here the Doppler shift quickly comes into play. Any ions flying toward the observer will be blue shifted and any ions flying away from the observer will be red shifted.

The level at which the ions undergo a Doppler shift depends on their relative motion, with respect to the observer. But this also makes their clock run slow, which redshifts the light from the observer’s point of view — an effect that you should be able to measure in the lab.

So the team stimulated transitions in the ions using two lasers propagating in opposite directions. Then any shifts in the absorption frequency of the ions are dependent on the Doppler effect, which we can easily calculate, and the redshift due to time dilation.

The team verified their time dilation prediction to a few parts per billion, improving on previous limits. The findings were published on Sept. 16 in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Book Review: Time Reborn

Time Reborn: From the Crisis of Physics to the Future of the Universe is one of those books intended to provoke discussion. Right from the first pages, author Lee Smolin — a Canadian theoretical physicist who also teaches philosophy — puts forward a position: time is real, and not an illusion of the human experience (as other physicists try to argue).

Smolin, in fact, uses that concept of time as a basis for human free will. If time is real, he writes, this is the result: “Novelty is real. We can create, with our imagination, outcomes not computable from knowledge of the present.”

Physics as philosophy. A powerful statement to make in the opening parts of the book.  The only challenge is understanding the rest of it.

Smolin advertises his book as open to the general reader who has no background in physics or mathematics, promising that there aren’t even equations to worry about. He also breaks up the involved explanations with wry observations of fatherhood, or by bringing up anecdotes from his past.

Artist concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth to measure space-time, a four-dimensional description of the universe including height, width, length, and time.  Image credit: NASA
Artist concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth to measure space-time, a four-dimensional description of the universe including height, width, length, and time. Image credit: NASA

It works, but you need to be patient. Theoretical physics is so far outside of the everyday that at times it took me (with education focusing on journalism and space policy, admittedly) two or three readings of the same passage to understand what was going on.

But as I took my time, a whole world opened up to me.

I found myself understanding more about Einstein’s special and general relativity than I did in readings during high school and university. The book also made me think differently about cosmology (the nature of the universe), especially in relation to biological laws.

While the book is enjoyable, it is probably best not to read it in isolation as it is a positional one — a book that gathers information scientifically and analytically, to be sure, but one that does not have a neutral point of view to the conclusions.

We’d recommend picking up other books such as the classic A Brief History of Time (by physicist Stephen Hawking) to learn more about the universe, and how other scientists see time work.

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Special Relativity From First Principles


Einstein’s explanation of special relativity, delivered in his 1905 paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies focuses on demolishing the idea of ‘absolute rest’, exemplified by the theoretical luminiferous aether. He achieved this very successfully, but many hearing that argument today are left puzzled as to why everything seems to depend upon the speed of light in a vacuum.

Since few people in the 21st century need convincing that the luminiferous aether does not exist, it is possible to come at the concept of special relativity in a different way and just through an exercise of logic deduce that the universe must have an absolute speed – and from there deduce special relativity as a logical consequence.

The argument goes like this:

1) There must be an absolute speed in any universe since speed is a measure of distance moved over time. Increasing your speed means you reduce your travel time between a distance A to B. A kilometre walk to the shops might take 25 minutes, but if you run it might take only 15 minutes – and if you take the car, only 2 minutes. At least theoretically you should be able to increase your speed up to the point where that travel time reaches zero – and whatever speed you are at when that happens will represent the universe’s absolute speed.

2) Now consider the principle of relativity. Einstein talked about trains and platforms to describe different inertial frame of references. So for example, you can measure someone throwing a ball forward at 10 km/hr on the platform. But put that someone on the train which is travelling at 60 km/hr and then the ball measurably moves forward at nearly 70 km/hr (relative to the platform).

3) Point 2 is a big problem for a universe that has an absolute speed (see Point 1). For example, if you had an instrument that projected something forward at the absolute speed of the universe and then put that instrument on the train – you would expect to be able to measure something moving at the absolute speed + 60 km/hr.

4) Einstein deduced that when you observe something moving in a different frame of reference to your own, the components of speed (i.e. distance and time), must change in that other frame of reference to ensure that anything that moves can never be measured moving at a speed greater than the absolute speed.

Thus on the train, distances should contract and time should dilate (since time is the denominator of distance over time).

The effect of relative motion. Measurable time dilation is negligible on a train moving past a platform at 60 km/hr, but increases dramatically if that train acquires the capacity to approach the speed of light. Time (and distance) will change to ensure that light speed is always light speed, not light speed + the speed of the train.

And that’s it really. From there one can just look to the universe for examples of something that always moves at the same speed regardless of frame of reference. When you find that something, you will know that it must be moving at the absolute speed.

Einstein offers two examples in the opening paragraphs of On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies:

  • the electromagnetic output produced by the relative motion of a magnet and an induction coil is the same whether the magnet is moved or whether the coil is moved (a finding of James Clerk Maxwell‘s electromagnetic theory) and;
  • the failure to demonstrate that the motion of the Earth adds any additional speed to a light beam moving ahead of the Earth’s orbital trajectory (presumably an oblique reference to the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment).

In other words, electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) demonstrated the very property that would be expected of something which moved at the absolute speed that it is possible to move in our universe.

The fact that light happens to move at the absolute speed of the universe is useful to know – since we can measure the speed of light and hence we can then assign a numerical value to the universe’s absolute speed (i.e. 300,000 km/sec), rather than just calling it c.

Further reading:
None! That was AWAT #100 – more than enough for anyone. Thanks for reading, even if it was just today. SN.