The concern about
fast light began in the early part of
the 20th century after Einstein developed his theory
of special relativity. According to relativity, if information
can travel faster than c, the speed of light in vacuum, then for
some observers, it will arrive at its destination before it
leaves its source. This would be a violation of causality
because an effect could occur before its own cause! It was
therefore accepted that (if relativity is correct, as it appears
to be) information cannot travel faster than c.
The problem was that until that time, it was believed that information encoded on optical pulses moved at the group velocity (described in the Fast Light Tutorial), which was known to exceed c, at least theoretically.
|Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld. You can view a biography of Sommerfeld hosted by the University of St. Andrews.|
In response to this concern, Sommerfeld and Brillouin performed
a very thorough analysis of pulse propagation. By performing a
theoretical analysis of the propagation of square pulses, they
arrived at a number of interesting conclusions. They found that
front of an optical pulse always travels at c. The
front is simply the very leading edge of the pulse.
|Léon Brillouin. You can view a biography of Brillouin provided by Wolfram.|
They also found that when the group velocity exceeded c, their pulses no longer traveled at the group velocity! They found their pulses to be strongly distorted, with the bulk of the pulse moving slower than c. They defined yet another velocity, which they called the signal velocity, as the velocity of the main part of the pulse1.
For decades, the work of Brillouin and Sommerfeld was accepted as a demonstration that information does not propagate faster than c in a medium with a fast group velocity. In fact, it was well accepted that the group velocity was meaningless when faster than c. In that case, it was believed that the signal velocity vs was the proper descriptor of pulse propagation and that vs was always less than c .
Then, in 1970, Garrett and McCumber demonstrated theoretically that smooth pulses (recall that Sommerfeld and Brillouin used square pulses) could propagate largely undistorted at group velocities faster than c. Their work was verified experimentally in 1982 by Chu and Wong and again in 1985 by Ségard and Macke, paving the way for further debate.
Since then, there have been many different and often conflicting experimental and theoretical results. While most (but not all) of these results argue that relativistic causality is not threatened, the explanations vary wildly.
For example, Nimtz and Haibel claim that all information-bearing waveforms have non-zero temporal extent and, while these waveforms can be superluminally advanced, causality is preserved because the advancement must be less than the extent of the entire waveform. However, this claim seems to rest on the assumption that no information is available until the entire waveform has been received.
In contrast, Chiao and coworkers suggest that information is
encoded in points of non-analyticity, which cannot be
superluminally advanced. In fact, they claim that these
non-analytic points move at precisely c in any medium because
they necessarily have infinite bandwidth, and that the
refractive index n(ω) → ∞ as ω →
∞ for any medium. Nimtz and Haibel object to the
suggestion of infinite bandwidth, and therefore to the concept
of a true physical discontinuity. There is also the question of
point on a waveform can be detected; it contains no
energy itself so there is nothing to detect!
In another interesting paper, Kuzmich et al. demonstrate that points on a waveform with a constant signal to noise ratio move no faster than c, although they present no strong link between these points and information.