updated: 22-MAR-1993 by SIC
There was a young lady named Bright, Whose speed was far faster than light. She went out one day, In a relative way, And returned the previous night! -Reginald Buller
It is a well known fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. At best, a massless particle travels at the speed of light. But is this really true? In 1962, Bilaniuk, Deshpande, and Sudarshan, Am. J. Phys. 30, 718 (1962), said "no". A very readable paper is Bilaniuk and Sudarshan, Phys. Today 22,43 (1969). I give here a brief overview.
Draw a graph, with momentum (p) on the x-axis, and energy (E) on the y-axis. Then draw the "light cone", two lines with the equations E = +/- p. This divides our 1+1 dimensional space-time into two regions. Above and below are the "timelike" quadrants, and to the left and right are the "spacelike" quadrants.
Now the fundamental fact of relativity is that E^2 - p^2 = m^2. (Let's take c=1 for the rest of the discussion.) For any non-zero value of m (mass), this is an hyperbola with branches in the timelike regions. It passes through the point (p,E) = (0,m), where the particle is at rest. Any particle with mass m is constrained to move on the upper branch of this hyperbola. (Otherwise, it is "off-shell", a term you hear in association with virtual particles - but that's another topic.) For massless particles, E^2 = p^2, and the particle moves on the light-cone.
These two cases are given the names tardyon (or bradyon in more modern usage) and luxon, for "slow particle" and "light particle". Tachyon is the name given to the supposed "fast particle" which would move with v>c.
Now another familiar relativistic equation is E = m*[1-(v/c)^2]^(-.5). Tachyons (if they exist) have v > c. This means that E is imaginary! Well, what if we take the rest mass m, and take it to be imaginary? Then E is negative real, and E^2 - p^2 = m^2 < 0. Or, p^2 - E^2 = M^2, where M is real. This is a hyperbola with branches in the spacelike region of spacetime. The energy and momentum of a tachyon must satisfy this relation.
You can now deduce many interesting properties of tachyons. For example, they accelerate (p goes up) if they lose energy (E goes down). Futhermore, a zero-energy tachyon is "transcendent," or infinitely fast. This has profound consequences. For example, let's say that there were electrically charged tachyons. Since they would move faster than the speed of light in the vacuum, they should produce Cerenkov radiation. This would lower their energy, causing them to accelerate more! In other words, charged tachyons would probably lead to a runaway reaction releasing an arbitrarily large amount of energy. This suggests that coming up with a sensible theory of anything except free (noninteracting) tachyons is likely to be difficult. Heuristically, the problem is that we can get spontaneous creation of tachyon-antitachyon pairs, then do a runaway reaction, making the vacuum unstable. To treat this precisely requires quantum field theory, which gets complicated. It is not easy to summarize results here. However, one reasonably modern reference is Tachyons, Monopoles, and Related Topics, E. Recami, ed. (North-Holland, Amsterdam, 1978).
However, tachyons are not entirely invisible. You can imagine that you might produce them in some exotic nuclear reaction. If they are charged, you could "see" them by detecting the Cerenkov light they produce as they speed away faster and faster. Such experiments have been done. So far, no tachyons have been found. Even neutral tachyons can scatter off normal matter with experimentally observable consequences. Again, no such tachyons have been found.
How about using tachyons to transmit information faster than the speed of light, in violation of Special Relativity? It's worth noting that when one considers the relativistic quantum mechanics of tachyons, the question of whether they "really" go faster than the speed of light becomes much more touchy! In this framework, tachyons are waves that satisfy a wave equation. Let's treat free tachyons of spin zero, for simplicity. We'll set c = 1 to keep things less messy. The wavefunction of a single such tachyon can be expected to satisfy the usual equation for spin-zero particles, the Klein-Gordon equation:
(BOX + m^2)phi = 0
where BOX is the D'Alembertian, which in 3+1 dimensions is just
BOX = (d/dt)^2 - (d/dx)^2 - (d/dy)^2 - (d/dz)^2.
The difference with tachyons is that m^2 is negative, and m is imaginary.
To simplify the math a bit, let's work in 1+1 dimensions, with coordinates x and t, so that
BOX = (d/dt)^2 - (d/dx)^2
Everything we'll say generalizes to the real-world 3+1-dimensional case. Now - regardless of m, any solution is a linear combination, or superposition, of solutions of the form
phi(t,x) = exp(-iEt + ipx)
where E^2 - p^2 = m^2. When m^2 is negative there are two essentially different cases. Either |p| >= |E|, in which case E is real and we get solutions that look like waves whose crests move along at the rate |p|/|E| >= 1, i.e., no slower than the speed of light. Or |p| < |E|, in which case E is imaginary and we get solutions that look waves that amplify exponentially as time passes!
We can decide as we please whether or not we want to consider the second sort of solutions. They seem weird, but then the whole business is weird, after all.
The bottom line is that you can't use tachyons to send information faster than the speed of light from one place to another. Doing so would require creating a message encoded some way in a localized tachyon field, and sending it off at superluminal speed toward the intended receiver. But as we have seen you can't have it both ways - localized tachyon disturbances are subluminal and superluminal disturbances are nonlocal.
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