Gain-assisted superluminal light propagation

Nature. 2000 Jul 20;406(6793):277-9. doi: 10.1038/35018520.


Einstein's theory of special relativity and the principle of causality imply that the speed of any moving object cannot exceed that of light in a vacuum (c). Nevertheless, there exist various proposals for observing faster-than-c propagation of light pulses, using anomalous dispersion near an absorption line, nonlinear and linear gain lines, or tunnelling barriers. However, in all previous experimental demonstrations, the light pulses experienced either very large absorption or severe reshaping, resulting in controversies over the interpretation. Here we use gain-assisted linear anomalous dispersion to demonstrate superluminal light propagation in atomic caesium gas. The group velocity of a laser pulse in this region exceeds c and can even become negative, while the shape of the pulse is preserved. We measure a group-velocity index of n(g) = -310(+/- 5); in practice, this means that a light pulse propagating through the atomic vapour cell appears at the exit side so much earlier than if it had propagated the same distance in a vacuum that the peak of the pulse appears to leave the cell before entering it. The observed superluminal light pulse propagation is not at odds with causality, being a direct consequence of classical interference between its different frequency components in an anomalous dispersion region.