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Can Those Cherished Laws of Physics Be Broken?

By James Donahue

Star Trek fans know that Captain James Kirk and all of the other heroes of the spaceship Enterprise could not have accomplished their amazing adventures in space if they were forced to abide by existing laws of physics.

For example, ships that cannot exceed the speed of light, which is 186,300 miles per second, would spend 100,000 years just crossing our galaxy. Consequently, inventions like worm holes and "warp speed" are a necessity for a crew to zip around among the stars within a one-hour television show.

Yet another innovation created by Star Trek's Gene Roddenbury was the "transporter" that moved the space travelers conveniently from ship to planet, or ship to ship. This convenient gadget worked by breaking down the bodies of each traveler and reassembling them at the point of destination. It was a very effective way to get off the Enterprise and into the weekly adventure on some alien planet. And as our astronauts learned when they went through the dangerous task of actually bringing a man to the Moon and returning him to the ship, it would have solved a lot of problems.

As it was in the days when the Dick Tracy cartoon character envisioned a two-way radio worn on the wrist, scientists have a way of making imagination become reality.

But is the act of breaking a living person into nothing and then reassembling the body successfully at the other end of a laser beam without destroying it a possibility? Is it even possible to transport an object through space?

As Lawrence Krauss recently wrote for wired.com: "probably no single piece of science fiction technology aboard the Enterprise is so utterly implausible. More problems of practicality and principle would have to be overcome to create such a device than you might imagine. The challenges involve the whole spectrum of physics and mathematics, including information theory, quantum mechanics, Einstein's relation between mass and energy, elementary particle physics, and more."

And yet scientists, perhaps challenged by the very concept, are actually experimenting with the possibility of achieving teleportation. What is even more exciting, scientists in both the U.S. and Austria, working independently on this problem, recently succeeded in moving properties of one particle to another via a laser light.

And another team of scientists in Australia has discovered that the speed of light may not be a constant, that it has actually slowed over time, and that Einstein's theory of relativity may be flawed.

The possibility of a shift in the speed of light was first proposed by astronomer John Webb who discovered that light from a distant quasar had absorbed the wrong type of photons from interstellar clouds on its 12 billion-year trip to Earth. That is pretty technical, but what it means is that there is a discrepancy in the law of light that theoretical physicist Paul Davies said can only be explained if either the electron charge, or the speed of light changed.

"But two of the cherished laws of the universe are the law that electron charge shall not change and that the speed of light shall not change, so whichever way you look at it we're in trouble," Davies said.

In the meantime, the implications are as unclear as the unexplored depths of the universe themselves.

"When one of the cornerstones of physics collapses, it's not obvious what you hang onto and what you discard," Davies said.

He suggested that we are witnessing the beginning of a paradigm shift in physics that may be necessary before humans can truly explore the stars.