What's Faster Than Light?

While nothing with mass can move faster than the speed of light, scientists now think some weird, faster-than-light currents may be the powerhouse for fast-spinning stars.

The idea may sound heretical to one of most deeply held tenets in physics, which states that the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit. But the new proposal squeaks by on a loophole in that rule, which insists only that no mass or information exceeds the speed limit.

In this case, a faster-than-light current would pass through certain rapidly spinning stars. This would cause positively charged atoms in the star to move in one direction and negatively charged atoms would move in another. Each individual particle would move slower than the speed of light, but the wave of movement would pass through the star at a rate more rapid than light speed.

"No laws of physics were broken or harmed in this production," said researcher John Singleton of Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N. M. "This is not science fiction; it's real."

Singleton and his colleague Andrea Schmidt, also of Los Alamos, proposed this process to explain how certain mysterious stars called pulsars shine. These stars are very dense and rapidly spinning, and emit a beam of light like a lighthouse. Exactly how pulsars do this has been a mystery.

The researchers think that pulsars' rotating magnetic fields create this current, which pushes the charged particles off in different directions, resulting in a focused burst of light.

"We think we can explain virtually all observational data using this method," Singleton said.

Nonetheless, it's a somewhat radical idea, so the scientists aren't expecting everyone to agree with them immediately.

"This essentially is a completely new approach to pulsars, so will be treated with a great deal of hostility until it settles in," Singleton said.

He and Schmidt presented their research this month at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

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