‘Hidden’ photons might be able to communicate instantly through anything

The older I get, the more I tend to consider science in general (and physics in particular) to be something like an erratic genius uncle who turns up to family gatherings every once in a while and tells me something that completely screws with my head.

Today’s example: ‘hidden’ photons, which are… well, they’re like normal photons, but they don’t really interact much with ‘conventional’ matter. Which means they might be able to go right through things that normal photons can’t penetrate, and, er… look, I’ll leave the explaining to the professionals:

Hidden photons are a class of particles predicted by so-called supersymmetric extensions to the standard model of particle physics. Unlike normal photons, hidden photons could have a tiny mass and would be invisible because they would not interact with the charged particles in conventional matter. This means hidden photons would flit through even the densest materials unaffected.

The only place to spot them is in a vacuum, where they should sometimes “oscillate” into normal photons. There are already experiments searching for this effect: the idea is to shine a laser at a wall in a vacuum and see if any of the photons make it through to the other side by transforming into their hidden counterparts and back again. According to Ringwald’s group, if these experiments succeed it should be possible to scale up the apparatus so that the hidden photons become signal carriers and the “wall” becomes any stretch of ground or water.

Pretty cool, huh? Don’t get too excited, though; a hidden photon-based communication system would probably not be much more use than a telegraph link:

… Malcolm Fairbairn, a physicist at King’s College London, points out that over the 12,700-kilometre diameter of the Earth, the signal capacity would be just 1 bit per second: “At that speed it would take about a year to download an mp3 file, so I’m not sure who would use it.”

Dang. Still, I’ve got a five-spot bill here that says hidden photons will crop up in a Greg Bear novel within the next half decade…