The speed of light in vacuum, commonly denoted c, is a universal physical constant important in many areas of physics. Its exact value is 299,792,458 metres per second (approximately 300,000 km/s (186,000 mi/s)[Note 3]). It is exact because by international agreement a metre is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 second.[Note 4] According to special relativity, c is the maximum speed at which all conventional matter and hence all known forms of information in the universe can travel. Though this speed is most commonly associated with light, it is in fact the speed at which all massless particles and changes of the associated fields travel in vacuum (including electromagnetic radiation and gravitational waves). Such particles and waves travel at c regardless of the motion of the source or the inertial reference frame of the observer. In the special and general theories of relativity, c interrelates space and time, and also appears in the famous equation of mass–energy equivalence E = mc2.
The speed at which light propagates through transparent materials, such as glass or air, is less than c; similarly, the speed of electromagnetic waves in wire cables is slower than c. The ratio between c and the speed v at which light travels in a material is called the refractive index n of the material (n = c / v). For example, for visible light the refractive index of glass is typically around 1.5, meaning that light in glass travels at c / 1.5 ≈ 200,000 km/s (124,000 mi/s); the refractive index of air for visible light is about 1.0003, so the speed of light in air is about 299,700 km/s (186,220 mi/s), which is about 90 km/s (56 mi/s) slower than c.
For many practical purposes, light and other electromagnetic waves will appear to propagate instantaneously, but for long distances and very sensitive measurements, their finite speed has noticeable effects. In communicating with distant space probes, it can take minutes to hours for a message to get from Earth to the spacecraft, or vice versa. The light seen from stars left them many years ago, allowing the study of the history of the universe by looking at distant objects. The finite speed of light also limits the theoretical maximum speed of computers, since information must be sent within the computer from chip to chip. The speed of light can be used with time of flight measurements to measure large distances to high precision.
Ole Rømer first demonstrated in 1676 that light travels at a finite speed (as opposed to instantaneously) by studying the apparent motion of Jupiter's moon Io. In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and therefore travelled at the speed c appearing in his theory of electromagnetism. In 1905, Albert Einstein postulated that the speed of light c with respect to any inertial frame is a constant and is independent of the motion of the light source. He explored the consequences of that postulate by deriving the theory of relativity and in doing so showed that the parameter c had relevance outside of the context of light and electromagnetism.
After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, in 1975 the speed of light was known to be 299792458 m/s (983571056 ft/s; 186282.397 mi/s) with a measurement uncertainty of 4 parts per billion. In 1983, the metre was redefined in the International System of Units (SI) as the distance travelled by light in vacuum in 1/299792458 of a second.
|Speed of light|
|metres per second||299792458|
|Planck length per Planck time |
(i.e., Planck units)
|Approximate values (to three significant digits)|
|kilometres per hour||1080000000|
|miles per second||186000|
|miles per hour||671000000|
|astronomical units per day||173[Note 1]|
|parsecs per year||0.307[Note 2]|
|Approximate light signal travel times|
|one foot||1.0 ns|
|one metre||3.3 ns|
|from geostationary orbit to Earth||119 ms|
|the length of Earth's equator||134 ms|
|from Moon to Earth||1.3 s|
|from Sun to Earth (1 AU)||8.3 min|
|one light year||1.0 year|
|one parsec||3.26 years|
|from nearest star to Sun (1.3 pc)||4.2 years|
|from the nearest galaxy (the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy) to Earth||25000 years|
|across the Milky Way||100000 years|
|from the Andromeda Galaxy to Earth||2.5 million years|
|from Earth to the edge of the observable universe||46.5 billion years|
The speed of light in vacuum is usually denoted by a lowercase c, for "constant" or the Latin celeritas (meaning "swiftness, celerity"). In 1856, Wilhelm Eduard Weber and Rudolf Kohlrausch had used c for a different constant later shown to equal √ times the speed of light in vacuum. Historically, the symbol V was used as an alternative symbol for the speed of light, introduced by James Clerk Maxwell in 1865. In 1894, Paul Drude redefined c with its modern meaning. Einstein used V in his original German-language papers on special relativity in 1905, but in 1907 he switched to c, which by then had become the standard symbol for the speed of light.
Sometimes c is used for the speed of waves in any material medium, and c0 for the speed of light in vacuum. This subscripted notation, which is endorsed in official SI literature, has the same form as other related constants: namely, μ0 for the vacuum permeability or magnetic constant, ε0 for the vacuum permittivity or electric constant, and Z0 for the impedance of free space. This article uses c exclusively for the speed of light in vacuum.
Since 1983, the metre has been defined in the International System of Units (SI) as the distance light travels in vacuum in 1⁄299792458 of a second. This definition fixes the speed of light in vacuum at exactly 299,792,458 m/s. As a dimensional physical constant, the numerical value of c is different for different unit systems.[Note 3] In branches of physics in which c appears often, such as in relativity, it is common to use systems of natural units of measurement or the geometrized unit system where c = 1. Using these units, c does not appear explicitly because multiplication or division by 1 does not affect the result.
The speed at which light waves propagate in vacuum is independent both of the motion of the wave source and of the inertial frame of reference of the observer.[Note 5] This invariance of the speed of light was postulated by Einstein in 1905, after being motivated by Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism and the lack of evidence for the luminiferous aether; it has since been consistently confirmed by many experiments. It is only possible to verify experimentally that the two-way speed of light (for example, from a source to a mirror and back again) is frame-independent, because it is impossible to measure the one-way speed of light (for example, from a source to a distant detector) without some convention as to how clocks at the source and at the detector should be synchronized. However, by adopting Einstein synchronization for the clocks, the one-way speed of light becomes equal to the two-way speed of light by definition. The special theory of relativity explores the consequences of this invariance of c with the assumption that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference. One consequence is that c is the speed at which all massless particles and waves, including light, must travel in vacuum.
Special relativity has many counterintuitive and experimentally verified implications. These include the equivalence of mass and energy (E = mc2), length contraction (moving objects shorten),[Note 6] and time dilation (moving clocks run more slowly). The factor γ by which lengths contract and times dilate is known as the Lorentz factor and is given by γ = (1 − v2/c2)−1/2, where v is the speed of the object. The difference of γ from 1 is negligible for speeds much slower than c, such as most everyday speeds—in which case special relativity is closely approximated by Galilean relativity—but it increases at relativistic speeds and diverges to infinity as v approaches c. For example, a time dilation factor of γ = 2 occurs at a relative velocity of 86.6% of the speed of light (v = .866c). Similarly, a time dilation factor of γ = 10 occurs at v = 99.5% c.
The results of special relativity can be summarized by treating space and time as a unified structure known as spacetime (with c relating the units of space and time), and requiring that physical theories satisfy a special symmetry called Lorentz invariance, whose mathematical formulation contains the parameter c. Lorentz invariance is an almost universal assumption for modern physical theories, such as quantum electrodynamics, quantum chromodynamics, the Standard Model of particle physics, and general relativity. As such, the parameter c is ubiquitous in modern physics, appearing in many contexts that are unrelated to light. For example, general relativity predicts that c is also the speed of gravity and of gravitational waves.[Note 7] In non-inertial frames of reference (gravitationally curved spacetime or accelerated reference frames), the local speed of light is constant and equal to c, but the speed of light along a trajectory of finite length can differ from c, depending on how distances and times are defined.
It is generally assumed that fundamental constants such as c have the same value throughout spacetime, meaning that they do not depend on location and do not vary with time. However, it has been suggested in various theories that the speed of light may have changed over time. No conclusive evidence for such changes has been found, but they remain the subject of ongoing research.
It also is generally assumed that the speed of light is isotropic, meaning that it has the same value regardless of the direction in which it is measured. Observations of the emissions from nuclear energy levels as a function of the orientation of the emitting nuclei in a magnetic field (see Hughes–Drever experiment), and of rotating optical resonators (see Resonator experiments) have put stringent limits on the possible two-way anisotropy.
According to special relativity, the energy of an object with rest mass m and speed v is given by γmc2, where γ is the Lorentz factor defined above. When v is zero, γ is equal to one, giving rise to the famous E = mc2 formula for mass–energy equivalence. The γ factor approaches infinity as v approaches c, and it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass to the speed of light. The speed of light is the upper limit for the speeds of objects with positive rest mass, and individual photons cannot travel faster than the speed of light. This is experimentally established in many tests of relativistic energy and momentum.
More generally, it is normally impossible for information or energy to travel faster than c. One argument for this follows from the counter-intuitive implication of special relativity known as the relativity of simultaneity. If the spatial distance between two events A and B is greater than the time interval between them multiplied by c then there are frames of reference in which A precedes B, others in which B precedes A, and others in which they are simultaneous. As a result, if something were travelling faster than c relative to an inertial frame of reference, it would be travelling backwards in time relative to another frame, and causality would be violated.[Note 8] In such a frame of reference, an "effect" could be observed before its "cause". Such a violation of causality has never been recorded, and would lead to paradoxes such as the tachyonic antitelephone.
There are situations in which it may seem that matter, energy, or information travels at speeds greater than c, but they do not. For example, as is discussed in the propagation of light in a medium section below, many wave velocities can exceed c. For example, the phase velocity of X-rays through most glasses can routinely exceed c, but phase velocity does not determine the velocity at which waves convey information.
If a laser beam is swept quickly across a distant object, the spot of light can move faster than c, although the initial movement of the spot is delayed because of the time it takes light to get to the distant object at the speed c. However, the only physical entities that are moving are the laser and its emitted light, which travels at the speed c from the laser to the various positions of the spot. Similarly, a shadow projected onto a distant object can be made to move faster than c, after a delay in time. In neither case does any matter, energy, or information travel faster than light.
The rate of change in the distance between two objects in a frame of reference with respect to which both are moving (their closing speed) may have a value in excess of c. However, this does not represent the speed of any single object as measured in a single inertial frame.
Certain quantum effects appear to be transmitted instantaneously and therefore faster than c, as in the EPR paradox. An example involves the quantum states of two particles that can be entangled. Until either of the particles is observed, they exist in a superposition of two quantum states. If the particles are separated and one particle's quantum state is observed, the other particle's quantum state is determined instantaneously (i.e., faster than light could travel from one particle to the other). However, it is impossible to control which quantum state the first particle will take on when it is observed, so information cannot be transmitted in this manner.
Another quantum effect that predicts the occurrence of faster-than-light speeds is called the Hartman effect: under certain conditions the time needed for a virtual particle to tunnel through a barrier is constant, regardless of the thickness of the barrier. This could result in a virtual particle crossing a large gap faster-than-light. However, no information can be sent using this effect.
So-called superluminal motion is seen in certain astronomical objects, such as the relativistic jets of radio galaxies and quasars. However, these jets are not moving at speeds in excess of the speed of light: the apparent superluminal motion is a projection effect caused by objects moving near the speed of light and approaching Earth at a small angle to the line of sight: since the light which was emitted when the jet was farther away took longer to reach the Earth, the time between two successive observations corresponds to a longer time between the instants at which the light rays were emitted.
In models of the expanding universe, the farther galaxies are from each other, the faster they drift apart. This receding is not due to motion through space, but rather to the expansion of space itself. For example, galaxies far away from Earth appear to be moving away from the Earth with a speed proportional to their distances. Beyond a boundary called the Hubble sphere, the rate at which their distance from Earth increases becomes greater than the speed of light.
In classical physics, light is described as a type of electromagnetic wave. The classical behaviour of the electromagnetic field is described by Maxwell's equations, which predict that the speed c with which electromagnetic waves (such as light) propagate through the vacuum is related to the distributed capacitance and inductance of the vacuum, otherwise respectively known as the electric constant ε0 and the magnetic constant μ0, by the equation
In modern quantum physics, the electromagnetic field is described by the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). In this theory, light is described by the fundamental excitations (or quanta) of the electromagnetic field, called photons. In QED, photons are massless particles and thus, according to special relativity, they travel at the speed of light in vacuum.
Extensions of QED in which the photon has a mass have been considered. In such a theory, its speed would depend on its frequency, and the invariant speed c of special relativity would then be the upper limit of the speed of light in vacuum. No variation of the speed of light with frequency has been observed in rigorous testing, putting stringent limits on the mass of the photon. The limit obtained depends on the model used: if the massive photon is described by Proca theory, the experimental upper bound for its mass is about 10−57 grams; if photon mass is generated by a Higgs mechanism, the experimental upper limit is less sharp, m ≤ 10−14 eV/c2  (roughly 2 × 10−47 g).
Another reason for the speed of light to vary with its frequency would be the failure of special relativity to apply to arbitrarily small scales, as predicted by some proposed theories of quantum gravity. In 2009, the observation of the spectrum of gamma-ray burst GRB 090510 did not find any difference in the speeds of photons of different energies, confirming that Lorentz invariance is verified at least down to the scale of the Planck length (lP = √ ≈ 1.6163×10−35 m) divided by 1.2.
In a medium, light usually does not propagate at a speed equal to c; further, different types of light wave will travel at different speeds. The speed at which the individual crests and troughs of a plane wave (a wave filling the whole space, with only one frequency) propagate is called the phase velocity vp. An actual physical signal with a finite extent (a pulse of light) travels at a different speed. The largest part of the pulse travels at the group velocity vg, and its earliest part travels at the front velocity vf.
The phase velocity is important in determining how a light wave travels through a material or from one material to another. It is often represented in terms of a refractive index. The refractive index of a material is defined as the ratio of c to the phase velocity vp in the material: larger indices of refraction indicate lower speeds. The refractive index of a material may depend on the light's frequency, intensity, polarization, or direction of propagation; in many cases, though, it can be treated as a material-dependent constant. The refractive index of air is approximately 1.0003. Denser media, such as water, glass, and diamond, have refractive indexes of around 1.3, 1.5 and 2.4, respectively, for visible light. In exotic materials like Bose–Einstein condensates near absolute zero, the effective speed of light may be only a few metres per second. However, this represents absorption and re-radiation delay between atoms, as do all slower-than-c speeds in material substances. As an extreme example of light "slowing" in matter, two independent teams of physicists claimed to bring light to a "complete standstill" by passing it through a Bose–Einstein condensate of the element rubidium, one team at Harvard University and the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge, Mass., and the other at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also in Cambridge. However, the popular description of light being "stopped" in these experiments refers only to light being stored in the excited states of atoms, then re-emitted at an arbitrarily later time, as stimulated by a second laser pulse. During the time it had "stopped," it had ceased to be light. This type of behaviour is generally microscopically true of all transparent media which "slow" the speed of light.
In transparent materials, the refractive index generally is greater than 1, meaning that the phase velocity is less than c. In other materials, it is possible for the refractive index to become smaller than 1 for some frequencies; in some exotic materials it is even possible for the index of refraction to become negative. The requirement that causality is not violated implies that the real and imaginary parts of the dielectric constant of any material, corresponding respectively to the index of refraction and to the attenuation coefficient, are linked by the Kramers–Kronig relations. In practical terms, this means that in a material with refractive index less than 1, the absorption of the wave is so quick that no signal can be sent faster than c.
A pulse with different group and phase velocities (which occurs if the phase velocity is not the same for all the frequencies of the pulse) smears out over time, a process known as dispersion. Certain materials have an exceptionally low (or even zero) group velocity for light waves, a phenomenon called slow light, which has been confirmed in various experiments. The opposite, group velocities exceeding c, has also been shown in experiment. It should even be possible for the group velocity to become infinite or negative, with pulses travelling instantaneously or backwards in time.
None of these options, however, allow information to be transmitted faster than c. It is impossible to transmit information with a light pulse any faster than the speed of the earliest part of the pulse (the front velocity). It can be shown that this is (under certain assumptions) always equal to c.
It is possible for a particle to travel through a medium faster than the phase velocity of light in that medium (but still slower than c). When a charged particle does that in a dielectric material, the electromagnetic equivalent of a shock wave, known as Cherenkov radiation, is emitted.
The speed of light is of relevance to communications: the one-way and round-trip delay time are greater than zero. This applies from small to astronomical scales. On the other hand, some techniques depend on the finite speed of light, for example in distance measurements.
In supercomputers, the speed of light imposes a limit on how quickly data can be sent between processors. If a processor operates at 1 gigahertz, a signal can only travel a maximum of about 30 centimetres (1 ft) in a single cycle. Processors must therefore be placed close to each other to minimize communication latencies; this can cause difficulty with cooling. If clock frequencies continue to increase, the speed of light will eventually become a limiting factor for the internal design of single chips.
Given that the equatorial circumference of the Earth is about 40075 km and that c is about 300000 km/s, the theoretical shortest time for a piece of information to travel half the globe along the surface is about 67 milliseconds. When light is travelling around the globe in an optical fibre, the actual transit time is longer, in part because the speed of light is slower by about 35% in an optical fibre, depending on its refractive index n.[Note 9] Furthermore, straight lines rarely occur in global communications situations, and delays are created when the signal passes through an electronic switch or signal regenerator.
Similarly, communications between the Earth and spacecraft are not instantaneous. There is a brief delay from the source to the receiver, which becomes more noticeable as distances increase. This delay was significant for communications between ground control and Apollo 8 when it became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the Moon: for every question, the ground control station had to wait at least three seconds for the answer to arrive. The communications delay between Earth and Mars can vary between five and twenty minutes depending upon the relative positions of the two planets. As a consequence of this, if a robot on the surface of Mars were to encounter a problem, its human controllers would not be aware of it until at least five minutes later, and possibly up to twenty minutes later; it would then take a further five to twenty minutes for instructions to travel from Earth to Mars.
NASA must wait several hours for information from a probe orbiting Jupiter, and if it needs to correct a navigation error, the fix will not arrive at the spacecraft for an equal amount of time, creating a risk of the correction not arriving in time.
Receiving light and other signals from distant astronomical sources can even take much longer. For example, it has taken 13 billion (13×109) years for light to travel to Earth from the faraway galaxies viewed in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images. Those photographs, taken today, capture images of the galaxies as they appeared 13 billion years ago, when the universe was less than a billion years old. The fact that more distant objects appear to be younger, due to the finite speed of light, allows astronomers to infer the evolution of stars, of galaxies, and of the universe itself.
Astronomical distances are sometimes expressed in light-years, especially in popular science publications and media. A light-year is the distance light travels in one year, around 9461 billion kilometres, 5879 billion miles, or 0.3066 parsecs. In round figures, a light year is nearly 10 trillion kilometres or nearly 6 trillion miles. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth after the Sun, is around 4.2 light-years away.
Radar systems measure the distance to a target by the time it takes a radio-wave pulse to return to the radar antenna after being reflected by the target: the distance to the target is half the round-trip transit time multiplied by the speed of light. A Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver measures its distance to GPS satellites based on how long it takes for a radio signal to arrive from each satellite, and from these distances calculates the receiver's position. Because light travels about 300000 kilometres (186000 mi) in one second, these measurements of small fractions of a second must be very precise. The Lunar Laser Ranging Experiment, radar astronomy and the Deep Space Network determine distances to the Moon, planets and spacecraft, respectively, by measuring round-trip transit times.
The speed of light has become important in high-frequency trading, where traders seek to gain minute advantages by delivering their trades to exchanges fractions of a second ahead of other traders. For example, traders have been switching to microwave communications between trading hubs, because of the advantage which microwaves travelling at near to the speed of light in air, have over fibre optic signals which travel 30–40% slower at the speed of light through glass.
There are different ways to determine the value of c. One way is to measure the actual speed at which light waves propagate, which can be done in various astronomical and earth-based setups. However, it is also possible to determine c from other physical laws where it appears, for example, by determining the values of the electromagnetic constants ε0 and μ0 and using their relation to c. Historically, the most accurate results have been obtained by separately determining the frequency and wavelength of a light beam, with their product equalling c.
In 1983 the metre was defined as "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1⁄299792458 of a second", fixing the value of the speed of light at 299792458 m/s by definition, as described below. Consequently, accurate measurements of the speed of light yield an accurate realization of the metre rather than an accurate value of c.
Outer space is a convenient setting for measuring the speed of light because of its large scale and nearly perfect vacuum. Typically, one measures the time needed for light to traverse some reference distance in the solar system, such as the radius of the Earth's orbit. Historically, such measurements could be made fairly accurately, compared to how accurately the length of the reference distance is known in Earth-based units. It is customary to express the results in astronomical units (AU) per day.
Ole Christensen Rømer used an astronomical measurement to make the first quantitative estimate of the speed of light. When measured from Earth, the periods of moons orbiting a distant planet are shorter when the Earth is approaching the planet than when the Earth is receding from it. The distance travelled by light from the planet (or its moon) to Earth is shorter when the Earth is at the point in its orbit that is closest to its planet than when the Earth is at the farthest point in its orbit, the difference in distance being the diameter of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. The observed change in the moon's orbital period is caused by the difference in the time it takes light to traverse the shorter or longer distance. Rømer observed this effect for Jupiter's innermost moon Io and deduced that light takes 22 minutes to cross the diameter of the Earth's orbit.
Another method is to use the aberration of light, discovered and explained by James Bradley in the 18th century. This effect results from the vector addition of the velocity of light arriving from a distant source (such as a star) and the velocity of its observer (see diagram on the right). A moving observer thus sees the light coming from a slightly different direction and consequently sees the source at a position shifted from its original position. Since the direction of the Earth's velocity changes continuously as the Earth orbits the Sun, this effect causes the apparent position of stars to move around. From the angular difference in the position of stars (maximally 20.5 arcseconds) it is possible to express the speed of light in terms of the Earth's velocity around the Sun, which with the known length of a year can be converted to the time needed to travel from the Sun to the Earth. In 1729, Bradley used this method to derive that light travelled 10,210 times faster than the Earth in its orbit (the modern figure is 10,066 times faster) or, equivalently, that it would take light 8 minutes 12 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth.
An astronomical unit (AU) is approximately the average distance between the Earth and Sun. It was redefined in 2012 as exactly 149597870700 m. Previously the AU was not based on the International System of Units but in terms of the gravitational force exerted by the Sun in the framework of classical mechanics.[Note 10] The current definition uses the recommended value in metres for the previous definition of the astronomical unit, which was determined by measurement. This redefinition is analogous to that of the metre, and likewise has the effect of fixing the speed of light to an exact value in astronomical units per second (via the exact speed of light in metres per second).
Previously, the inverse of c expressed in seconds per astronomical unit was measured by comparing the time for radio signals to reach different spacecraft in the Solar System, with their position calculated from the gravitational effects of the Sun and various planets. By combining many such measurements, a best fit value for the light time per unit distance could be obtained. For example, in 2009, the best estimate, as approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), was:
The relative uncertainty in these measurements is 0.02 parts per billion (2×10−11), equivalent to the uncertainty in Earth-based measurements of length by interferometry. Since the metre is defined to be the length travelled by light in a certain time interval, the measurement of the light time in terms of the previous definition of the astronomical unit can also be interpreted as measuring the length of an AU (old definition) in metres.[Note 11]
A method of measuring the speed of light is to measure the time needed for light to travel to a mirror at a known distance and back. This is the working principle behind the Fizeau–Foucault apparatus developed by Hippolyte Fizeau and Léon Foucault.
The setup as used by Fizeau consists of a beam of light directed at a mirror 8 kilometres (5 mi) away. On the way from the source to the mirror, the beam passes through a rotating cogwheel. At a certain rate of rotation, the beam passes through one gap on the way out and another on the way back, but at slightly higher or lower rates, the beam strikes a tooth and does not pass through the wheel. Knowing the distance between the wheel and the mirror, the number of teeth on the wheel, and the rate of rotation, the speed of light can be calculated.
The method of Foucault replaces the cogwheel by a rotating mirror. Because the mirror keeps rotating while the light travels to the distant mirror and back, the light is reflected from the rotating mirror at a different angle on its way out than it is on its way back. From this difference in angle, the known speed of rotation and the distance to the distant mirror the speed of light may be calculated.
Nowadays, using oscilloscopes with time resolutions of less than one nanosecond, the speed of light can be directly measured by timing the delay of a light pulse from a laser or an LED reflected from a mirror. This method is less precise (with errors of the order of 1%) than other modern techniques, but it is sometimes used as a laboratory experiment in college physics classes.
An option for deriving c that does not directly depend on a measurement of the propagation of electromagnetic waves is to use the relation between c and the vacuum permittivity ε0 and vacuum permeability μ0 established by Maxwell's theory: c2 = 1/(ε0μ0). The vacuum permittivity may be determined by measuring the capacitance and dimensions of a capacitor, whereas the value of the vacuum permeability is fixed at exactly 4π×10−7 H⋅m−1 through the definition of the ampere. Rosa and Dorsey used this method in 1907 to find a value of 299710±22 km/s.
Another way to measure the speed of light is to independently measure the frequency f and wavelength λ of an electromagnetic wave in vacuum. The value of c can then be found by using the relation c = fλ. One option is to measure the resonance frequency of a cavity resonator. If the dimensions of the resonance cavity are also known, these can be used to determine the wavelength of the wave. In 1946, Louis Essen and A.C. Gordon-Smith established the frequency for a variety of normal modes of microwaves of a microwave cavity of precisely known dimensions. The dimensions were established to an accuracy of about ±0.8 μm using gauges calibrated by interferometry. As the wavelength of the modes was known from the geometry of the cavity and from electromagnetic theory, knowledge of the associated frequencies enabled a calculation of the speed of light.
The Essen–Gordon-Smith result, 299792±9 km/s, was substantially more precise than those found by optical techniques. By 1950, repeated measurements by Essen established a result of 299792.5±3.0 km/s.
A household demonstration of this technique is possible, using a microwave oven and food such as marshmallows or margarine: if the turntable is removed so that the food does not move, it will cook the fastest at the antinodes (the points at which the wave amplitude is the greatest), where it will begin to melt. The distance between two such spots is half the wavelength of the microwaves; by measuring this distance and multiplying the wavelength by the microwave frequency (usually displayed on the back of the oven, typically 2450 MHz), the value of c can be calculated, "often with less than 5% error".
Interferometry is another method to find the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation for determining the speed of light.[Note 12] A coherent beam of light (e.g. from a laser), with a known frequency (f), is split to follow two paths and then recombined. By adjusting the path length while observing the interference pattern and carefully measuring the change in path length, the wavelength of the light (λ) can be determined. The speed of light is then calculated using the equation c = λf.
Before the advent of laser technology, coherent radio sources were used for interferometry measurements of the speed of light. However interferometric determination of wavelength becomes less precise with wavelength and the experiments were thus limited in precision by the long wavelength (~0.4 cm (0.16 in)) of the radiowaves. The precision can be improved by using light with a shorter wavelength, but then it becomes difficult to directly measure the frequency of the light. One way around this problem is to start with a low frequency signal of which the frequency can be precisely measured, and from this signal progressively synthesize higher frequency signals whose frequency can then be linked to the original signal. A laser can then be locked to the frequency, and its wavelength can be determined using interferometry. This technique was due to a group at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) (which later became NIST). They used it in 1972 to measure the speed of light in vacuum with a fractional uncertainty of 3.5×10−9.
|<1638||Galileo, covered lanterns||inconclusive:1252[Note 13]|
|<1667||Accademia del Cimento, covered lanterns||inconclusive:1253|
|1675||Rømer and Huygens, moons of Jupiter||220000||‒27% error|
|1729||James Bradley, aberration of light||301000||+0.40% error|
|1849||Hippolyte Fizeau, toothed wheel||315000||+5.1% error|
|1862||Léon Foucault, rotating mirror||298000±500||‒0.60% error|
|1907||Rosa and Dorsey, EM constants||299710±30||‒280 ppm error|
|1926||Albert A. Michelson, rotating mirror||299796±4||+12 ppm error|
|1950||Essen and Gordon-Smith, cavity resonator||299792.5±3.0||+0.14 ppm error|
|1958||K.D. Froome, radio interferometry||299792.50±0.10||+0.14 ppm error|
|1972||Evenson et al., laser interferometry||299792.4562±0.0011||‒0.006 ppm error|
|1983||17th CGPM, definition of the metre||299792.458 (exact)||exact, as defined|
Until the early modern period, it was not known whether light travelled instantaneously or at a very fast finite speed. The first extant recorded examination of this subject was in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks, Muslim scholars, and classical European scientists long debated this until Rømer provided the first calculation of the speed of light. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity concluded that the speed of light is constant regardless of one's frame of reference. Since then, scientists have provided increasingly accurate measurements.
Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC) was the first to propose a theory of light and claimed that light has a finite speed. He maintained that light was something in motion, and therefore must take some time to travel. Aristotle argued, to the contrary, that "light is due to the presence of something, but it is not a movement". Euclid and Ptolemy advanced Empedocles' emission theory of vision, where light is emitted from the eye, thus enabling sight. Based on that theory, Heron of Alexandria argued that the speed of light must be infinite because distant objects such as stars appear immediately upon opening the eyes.
Early Islamic philosophers initially agreed with the Aristotelian view that light had no speed of travel. In 1021, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) published the Book of Optics, in which he presented a series of arguments dismissing the emission theory of vision in favour of the now accepted intromission theory, in which light moves from an object into the eye. This led Alhazen to propose that light must have a finite speed, and that the speed of light is variable, decreasing in denser bodies. He argued that light is substantial matter, the propagation of which requires time, even if this is hidden from our senses. Also in the 11th century, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī agreed that light has a finite speed, and observed that the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.
In the 13th century, Roger Bacon argued that the speed of light in air was not infinite, using philosophical arguments backed by the writing of Alhazen and Aristotle. In the 1270s, Witelo considered the possibility of light travelling at infinite speed in vacuum, but slowing down in denser bodies.
In the early 17th century, Johannes Kepler believed that the speed of light was infinite, since empty space presents no obstacle to it. René Descartes argued that if the speed of light were to be finite, the Sun, Earth, and Moon would be noticeably out of alignment during a lunar eclipse. Since such misalignment had not been observed, Descartes concluded the speed of light was infinite. Descartes speculated that if the speed of light were found to be finite, his whole system of philosophy might be demolished. In Descartes' derivation of Snell's law, he assumed that even though the speed of light was instantaneous, the denser the medium, the faster was light's speed. Pierre de Fermat derived Snell's law using the opposing assumption, the denser the medium the slower light traveled. Fermat also argued in support of a finite speed of light.
In 1629, Isaac Beeckman proposed an experiment in which a person observes the flash of a cannon reflecting off a mirror about one mile (1.6 km) away. In 1638, Galileo Galilei proposed an experiment, with an apparent claim to having performed it some years earlier, to measure the speed of light by observing the delay between uncovering a lantern and its perception some distance away. He was unable to distinguish whether light travel was instantaneous or not, but concluded that if it were not, it must nevertheless be extraordinarily rapid. In 1667, the Accademia del Cimento of Florence reported that it had performed Galileo's experiment, with the lanterns separated by about one mile, but no delay was observed. The actual delay in this experiment would have been about 11 microseconds.
The first quantitative estimate of the speed of light was made in 1676 by Rømer (see Rømer's determination of the speed of light). From the observation that the periods of Jupiter's innermost moon Io appeared to be shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter than when receding from it, he concluded that light travels at a finite speed, and estimated that it takes light 22 minutes to cross the diameter of Earth's orbit. Christiaan Huygens combined this estimate with an estimate for the diameter of the Earth's orbit to obtain an estimate of speed of light of 220000 km/s, 26% lower than the actual value.
In his 1704 book Opticks, Isaac Newton reported Rømer's calculations of the finite speed of light and gave a value of "seven or eight minutes" for the time taken for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth (the modern value is 8 minutes 19 seconds). Newton queried whether Rømer's eclipse shadows were coloured; hearing that they were not, he concluded the different colours travelled at the same speed. In 1729, James Bradley discovered stellar aberration. From this effect he determined that light must travel 10,210 times faster than the Earth in its orbit (the modern figure is 10,066 times faster) or, equivalently, that it would take light 8 minutes 12 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth.
In the 19th century Hippolyte Fizeau developed a method to determine the speed of light based on time-of-flight measurements on Earth and reported a value of 315000 km/s. His method was improved upon by Léon Foucault who obtained a value of 298000 km/s in 1862. In the year 1856, Wilhelm Eduard Weber and Rudolf Kohlrausch measured the ratio of the electromagnetic and electrostatic units of charge, 1/√, by discharging a Leyden jar, and found that its numerical value was very close to the speed of light as measured directly by Fizeau. The following year Gustav Kirchhoff calculated that an electric signal in a resistanceless wire travels along the wire at this speed. In the early 1860s, Maxwell showed that, according to the theory of electromagnetism he was working on, electromagnetic waves propagate in empty space at a speed equal to the above Weber/Kohlrausch ratio, and drawing attention to the numerical proximity of this value to the speed of light as measured by Fizeau, he proposed that light is in fact an electromagnetic wave.
It was thought at the time that empty space was filled with a background medium called the luminiferous aether in which the electromagnetic field existed. Some physicists thought that this aether acted as a preferred frame of reference for the propagation of light and therefore it should be possible to measure the motion of the Earth with respect to this medium, by measuring the isotropy of the speed of light. Beginning in the 1880s several experiments were performed to try to detect this motion, the most famous of which is the experiment performed by Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley in 1887. The detected motion was always less than the observational error. Modern experiments indicate that the two-way speed of light is isotropic (the same in every direction) to within 6 nanometres per second. Because of this experiment Hendrik Lorentz proposed that the motion of the apparatus through the aether may cause the apparatus to contract along its length in the direction of motion, and he further assumed, that the time variable for moving systems must also be changed accordingly ("local time"), which led to the formulation of the Lorentz transformation. Based on Lorentz's aether theory, Henri Poincaré (1900) showed that this local time (to first order in v/c) is indicated by clocks moving in the aether, which are synchronized under the assumption of constant light speed. In 1904, he speculated that the speed of light could be a limiting velocity in dynamics, provided that the assumptions of Lorentz's theory are all confirmed. In 1905, Poincaré brought Lorentz's aether theory into full observational agreement with the principle of relativity.
In 1905 Einstein postulated from the outset that the speed of light in vacuum, measured by a non-accelerating observer, is independent of the motion of the source or observer. Using this and the principle of relativity as a basis he derived the special theory of relativity, in which the speed of light in vacuum c featured as a fundamental constant, also appearing in contexts unrelated to light. This made the concept of the stationary aether (to which Lorentz and Poincaré still adhered) useless and revolutionized the concepts of space and time.
In the second half of the 20th century much progress was made in increasing the accuracy of measurements of the speed of light, first by cavity resonance techniques and later by laser interferometer techniques. These were aided by new, more precise, definitions of the metre and second. In 1950, Louis Essen determined the speed as 299792.5±1 km/s, using cavity resonance. This value was adopted by the 12th General Assembly of the Radio-Scientific Union in 1957. In 1960, the metre was redefined in terms of the wavelength of a particular spectral line of krypton-86, and, in 1967, the second was redefined in terms of the hyperfine transition frequency of the ground state of caesium-133.
In 1972, using the laser interferometer method and the new definitions, a group at the US National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado determined the speed of light in vacuum to be c = 299792456.2±1.1 m/s. This was 100 times less uncertain than the previously accepted value. The remaining uncertainty was mainly related to the definition of the metre.[Note 14] As similar experiments found comparable results for c, the 15th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1975 recommended using the value 299792458 m/s for the speed of light.
In 1983 the 17th CGPM found that wavelengths from frequency measurements and a given value for the speed of light are more reproducible than the previous standard. They kept the 1967 definition of second, so the caesium hyperfine frequency would now determine both the second and the metre. To do this, they redefined the metre as: "The metre is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 of a second." As a result of this definition, the value of the speed of light in vacuum is exactly 299792458 m/s and has become a defined constant in the SI system of units. Improved experimental techniques that prior to 1983 would have measured the speed of light, no longer affect the known value of the speed of light in SI units, but instead allow a more precise realization of the metre by more accurately measuring the wavelength of Krypton-86 and other light sources.
In 2011, the CGPM stated its intention to redefine all seven SI base units using what it calls "the explicit-constant formulation", where each "unit is defined indirectly by specifying explicitly an exact value for a well-recognized fundamental constant", as was done for the speed of light. It proposed a new, but completely equivalent, wording of the metre's definition: "The metre, symbol m, is the unit of length; its magnitude is set by fixing the numerical value of the speed of light in vacuum to be equal to exactly 299792458 when it is expressed in the SI unit m s−1." This is one of the proposed changes to be incorporated in the next revision of the SI also termed the New SI.
... the most accurate standard for the metre is conveniently defined so that there are exactly 299,792,458 of them to the distance travelled by light in a standard second, giving a value for the metre that very accurately matches the now inadequately precise standard metre rule in Paris.
... if the speed of light is defined as a fixed number then, in principle, the time standard will serve as the length standard ...
The possibility that the fundamental constants may vary during the evolution of the universe offers an exceptional window onto higher dimensional theories and is probably linked with the nature of the dark energy that makes the universe accelerate today.
One peculiar consequence of this system of definitions is that any future refinement in our ability to measure c will not change the speed of light (which is a defined number), but will change the length of the meter!
Note that [...] improvements in experimental accuracy will modify the meter relative to atomic wavelengths, but not the value of the speed of light!
Albert Abraham Michelson FFRS HFRSE (December 19, 1852 – May 9, 1931) was an American physicist known for his work on measuring the speed of light and especially for the Michelson–Morley experiment. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize in a science.Astronomical unit
The astronomical unit (symbol: au, ua, or AU) is a unit of length, roughly the distance from Earth to the Sun. However, that distance varies as Earth orbits the Sun, from a maximum (aphelion) to a minimum (perihelion) and back again once a year. Originally conceived as the average of Earth's aphelion and perihelion, since 2012 it has been defined as exactly 149597870700 metres or about 150 million kilometres (93 million miles). The astronomical unit is used primarily for measuring distances within the Solar System or around other stars. It is also a fundamental component in the definition of another unit of astronomical length, the parsec.Classical mechanics
Classical mechanics describes the motion of macroscopic objects, from projectiles to parts of machinery, and astronomical objects, such as spacecraft, planets, stars and galaxies.
If the present state of an object is known it is possible to predict by the laws of classical mechanics how it will move in the future (determinism) and how it has moved in the past (reversibility).
The earliest development of classical mechanics is often referred to as Newtonian mechanics. It consists of the physical concepts employed by and the mathematical methods invented by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and others in the 17th century to describe the motion of bodies under the influence of a system of forces.
Later, more abstract methods were developed, leading to the reformulations of classical mechanics known as Lagrangian mechanics and Hamiltonian mechanics. These advances, made predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, extend substantially beyond Newton's work, particularly through their use of analytical mechanics. They are, with some modification, also used in all areas of modern physics.
Classical mechanics provides extremely accurate results when studying large objects that are not extremely massive and speeds not approaching the speed of light. When the objects being examined have about the size of an atom diameter, it becomes necessary to introduce the other major sub-field of mechanics: quantum mechanics. To describe velocities that are not small compared to the speed of light, special relativity is needed. In case that objects become extremely massive, general relativity becomes applicable. However, a number of modern sources do include relativistic mechanics into classical physics, which in their view represents classical mechanics in its most developed and accurate form.Expansion of the universe
The expansion of the universe is the increase of the distance between two distant parts of the universe with time. It is an intrinsic expansion whereby the scale of space itself changes. The universe does not expand "into" anything and does not require space to exist "outside" it. Technically, neither space nor objects in space move. Instead it is the metric governing the size and geometry of spacetime itself that changes in scale. Although light and objects within spacetime cannot travel faster than the speed of light, this limitation does not restrict the metric itself. To an observer it appears that space is expanding and all but the nearest galaxies are receding into the distance.
During the inflationary epoch about 10−32 of a second after the Big Bang, the universe suddenly expanded, and its volume increased by a factor of at least 1078 (an expansion of distance by a factor of at least 1026 in each of the three dimensions), equivalent to expanding an object 1 nanometer (10−9 m, about half the width of a molecule of DNA) in length to one approximately 10.6 light years (about 1017 m or 62 trillion miles) long. A much slower and gradual expansion of space continued after this, until at around 9.8 billion years after the Big Bang (4 billion years ago) it began to gradually expand more quickly, and is still doing so.
The metric expansion of space is of a kind completely different from the expansions and explosions seen in daily life. It also seems to be a property of the universe as a whole rather than a phenomenon that applies just to one part of the universe or can be observed from "outside" it.
Metric expansion is a key feature of Big Bang cosmology, is modeled mathematically with the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric and is a generic property of the universe we inhabit. However, the model is valid only on large scales (roughly the scale of galaxy clusters and above), because gravitational attraction binds matter together strongly enough that metric expansion cannot be observed at this time, on a smaller scale. As such, the only galaxies receding from one another as a result of metric expansion are those separated by cosmologically relevant scales larger than the length scales associated with the gravitational collapse that are possible in the age of the universe given the matter density and average expansion rate.
Physicists have postulated the existence of dark energy, appearing as a cosmological constant in the simplest gravitational models as a way to explain the acceleration. According to the simplest extrapolation of the currently-favored cosmological model, the Lambda-CDM model, this acceleration becomes more dominant into the future. In June 2016, NASA and ESA scientists reported that the universe was found to be expanding 5% to 9% faster than thought earlier, based on studies using the Hubble Space Telescope.While special relativity prohibits objects from moving faster than light with respect to a local reference frame where spacetime can be treated as flat and unchanging, it does not apply to situations where spacetime curvature or evolution in time become important. These situations are described by general relativity, which allows the separation between two distant objects to increase faster than the speed of light, although the definition of "separation" is different from that used in an inertial frame. This can be seen when observing distant galaxies more than the Hubble radius away from us (approximately 4.5 gigaparsecs or 14.7 billion light-years); these galaxies have a recession speed that is faster than the speed of light. Light that is emitted today from galaxies beyond the cosmological event horizon, about 5 gigaparsecs or 16 billion light-years, will never reach us, although we can still see the light that these galaxies emitted in the past. Because of the high rate of expansion, it is also possible for a distance between two objects to be greater than the value calculated by multiplying the speed of light by the age of the universe. These details are a frequent source of confusion among amateurs and even professional physicists. Due to the non-intuitive nature of the subject and what has been described by some as "careless" choices of wording, certain descriptions of the metric expansion of space and the misconceptions to which such descriptions can lead are an ongoing subject of discussion within education and communication of scientific concepts.Faster-than-light
Faster-than-light (also superluminal or FTL) communication and travel are the conjectural propagation of information or matter faster than the speed of light.
The special theory of relativity implies that only particles with zero rest mass may travel at the speed of light. Tachyons, particles whose speed exceeds that of light, have been hypothesized, but their existence would violate causality, and the consensus of physicists is that they cannot exist. On the other hand, what some physicists refer to as "apparent" or "effective" FTL depends on the hypothesis that unusually distorted regions of spacetime might permit matter to reach distant locations in less time than light could in normal or undistorted spacetime.
According to the current scientific theories, matter is required to travel at slower-than-light (also subluminal or STL) speed with respect to the locally distorted spacetime region. Apparent FTL is not excluded by general relativity; however, any apparent FTL physical plausibility is speculative. Examples of apparent FTL proposals are the Alcubierre drive and the traversable wormhole.Impulse drive
In the fictional Star Trek universe, the impulse drive is the method of propulsion that starships and other spacecraft use when they are travelling below the speed of light. Typically powered by deuterium fusion reactors, impulse engines let ships travel interplanetary distances readily. For example, Starfleet Academy cadets use impulse engines when flying from Earth to Saturn and back. Unlike the warp engines, impulse engines work on principles used in today's rocketry, throwing mass out the back as fast as possible to drive you forward.Light
Light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The word usually refers to visible light, which is the visible spectrum that is visible to the human eye and is responsible for the sense of sight. Visible light is usually defined as having wavelengths in the range of 400–700 nanometres (nm), or 4.00 × 10−7 to 7.00 × 10−7 m, between the infrared (with longer wavelengths) and the ultraviolet (with shorter wavelengths). This wavelength means a frequency range of roughly 430–750 terahertz (THz).
The main source of light on Earth is the Sun. Sunlight provides the energy that green plants use to create sugars mostly in the form of starches, which release energy into the living things that digest them. This process of photosynthesis provides virtually all the energy used by living things. Historically, another important source of light for humans has been fire, from ancient campfires to modern kerosene lamps. With the development of electric lights and power systems, electric lighting has effectively replaced firelight. Some species of animals generate their own light, a process called bioluminescence. For example, fireflies use light to locate mates, and vampire squids use it to hide themselves from prey.
The primary properties of visible light are intensity, propagation direction, frequency or wavelength spectrum, and polarization, while its speed in a vacuum, 299,792,458 metres per second, is one of the fundamental constants of nature. Visible light, as with all types of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), is experimentally found to always move at this speed in a vacuum.In physics, the term light sometimes refers to electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, whether visible or not. In this sense, gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves are also light. Like all types of EM radiation, visible light propagates as waves. However, the energy imparted by the waves is absorbed at single locations the way particles are absorbed. The absorbed energy of the EM waves is called a photon, and represents the quanta of light. When a wave of light is transformed and absorbed as a photon, the energy of the wave instantly collapses to a single location, and this location is where the photon "arrives." This is what is called the wave function collapse. This dual wave-like and particle-like nature of light is known as the wave–particle duality. The study of light, known as optics, is an important research area in modern physics.Light-year
The light-year is a unit of length used to express astronomical distances and measures about 9.46 trillion kilometres (9.46 x 1012 km) or 5.88 trillion miles (5.88 x 1012 mi). As defined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a light-year is the distance that light travels in vacuum in one Julian year (365.25 days). Because it includes the word "year", the term light-year is sometimes misinterpreted as a unit of time.
The light-year is most often used when expressing distances to stars and other distances on a galactic scale, especially in nonspecialist and popular science publications. The unit most commonly used in professional astrometry is the parsec (symbol: pc, about 3.26 light-years; the distance at which one astronomical unit subtends an angle of one second of arc).Mass–energy equivalence
In physics, mass–energy equivalence states that anything having mass has an equivalent amount of energy and vice versa, with these fundamental quantities directly relating to one another by Albert Einstein's famous formula:
This formula states that the equivalent energy (E) can be calculated as the mass (m) multiplied by the speed of light (c = ~3×108 m/s) squared. Similarly, anything having energy exhibits a corresponding mass m given by its energy E divided by the speed of light squared c2. Because the speed of light is a very large number in everyday units, the formula implies that even an everyday object at rest with a modest amount of mass has a very large amount of energy intrinsically. Chemical, nuclear, and other energy transformations may cause a system to lose some of its energy content (and thus some corresponding mass), releasing it as the radiant energy of light or as thermal energy for example.
Mass–energy equivalence arose originally from special relativity as a paradox described by Henri Poincaré. Einstein proposed it on 21 November 1905, in the paper Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy-content?, one of his Annus Mirabilis (Miraculous Year) papers. Einstein was the first to propose that the equivalence of mass and energy is a general principle and a consequence of the symmetries of space and time.
A consequence of the mass–energy equivalence is that if a body is stationary, it still has some internal or intrinsic energy, called its rest energy, corresponding to its rest mass. When the body is in motion, its total energy is greater than its rest energy, and equivalently its total mass (also called relativistic mass in this context) is greater than its rest mass. This rest mass is also called the intrinsic or invariant mass because it remains the same regardless of this motion, even for the extreme speeds or gravity considered in special and general relativity.
The mass–energy formula also serves to convert units of mass to units of energy (and vice versa), no matter what system of measurement units is used.Michelson–Morley experiment
The Michelson–Morley experiment was an attempt to detect the existence of aether, a supposed medium permeating space that was thought to be the carrier of light waves. The experiment was performed between April and July 1887 by Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and published in November of the same year. It compared the speed of light in perpendicular directions, in an attempt to detect the relative motion of matter through the stationary luminiferous aether ("aether wind"). The result was negative, in that Michelson and Morley found no significant difference between the speed of light in the direction of movement through the presumed aether, and the speed at right angles. This result is generally considered to be the first strong evidence against the then-prevalent aether theory, and initiated a line of research that eventually led to special relativity, which rules out a stationary aether. Of this experiment, Einstein wrote, "If the Michelson-Morley experiment had not brought us into serious embarrassment, no one would have regarded the relativity theory as a (halfway) redemption."Michelson–Morley type experiments have been repeated many times with steadily increasing sensitivity. These include experiments from 1902 to 1905, and a series of experiments in the 1920s. More recent optical resonator experiments confirmed the absence of any aether wind at the 10−17 level. Together with the Ives–Stilwell and Kennedy–Thorndike experiments, Michelson–Morley type experiments form one of the fundamental tests of special relativity theory.Minkowski diagram
The Minkowski diagram, also known as a spacetime diagram, was developed in 1908 by Hermann Minkowski and provides an illustration of the properties of space and time in the special theory of relativity. It allows a qualitative understanding of the corresponding phenomena like time dilation and length contraction without mathematical equations.
Minkowski diagrams are two-dimensional graphs that depict events as happening in a universe consisting of one space dimension and one time dimension. Unlike a regular distance-time graph, the distance is displayed on the horizontal axis and time on the vertical axis. Additionally, the time and space units of measurement are chosen in such a way that an object moving at the speed of light is depicted as following a 45° angle to the diagram's axes.
In this way, each object, like an observer or a vehicle, traces a certain line in the diagram, which is called its world line. Also, each point in the diagram represents a certain position in space and time, and is called an event, regardless of whether anything relevant happens there.Relativistic particle
A relativistic particle is a particle which moves with a relativistic speed; that is, a speed comparable to the speed of light. This is achieved by photons to the extent that effects described by special relativity are able to describe those of such particles themselves. Several approaches exist as a means of describing the motion of single and multiple relativistic particles, with a prominent example being postulations through Dirac equations of single particle motion.
Massive particles are relativistic when their kinetic energy is comparable to or greater than the energy corresponding to their rest mass. In other words, a massive particle is relativistic when its total mass-energy (rest mass + kinetic energy) is at least twice its rest mass. This condition implies that the particle's speed is close to the speed of light. According to the Lorentz factor formula, this requires the particle to move at 86.6025% or more of the speed of light. Such relativistic particles are generated in particle accelerators, as well as naturally occurring in cosmic radiation. In astrophysics, jets of relativistic plasma are produced by the centers of active galaxies and quasars.
A charged relativistic particle crossing the interface of two media with different dielectric constants emits transition radiation. This is exploited in the transition radiation detectors of high-velocity particles.Special relativity
In physics, special relativity (SR, also known as the special theory of relativity or STR) is the generally accepted and experimentally well-confirmed physical theory regarding the relationship between space and time. In Albert Einstein's original pedagogical treatment, it is based on two postulates:
The laws of physics are invariant (i.e., identical) in all inertial systems (i.e., non-accelerating frames of reference).
The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the motion of the light source.It was originally proposed by Albert Einstein in a paper published 26 September 1905 titled "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies". The inconsistency of Newtonian mechanics with Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism and the lack of experimental confirmation for a hypothesized luminiferous aether led to the development of special relativity, which corrects mechanics to handle situations involving motions at a significant fraction of the speed of light (known as relativistic velocities). As of today, special relativity is the most accurate model of motion at any speed when gravitational effects are negligible. Even so, the Newtonian mechanics model is still useful as an approximation at small velocities relative to the speed of light, due to its simplicity and high accuracy within its scope.
Special relativity implies a wide range of consequences, which have been experimentally verified, including length contraction, time dilation, relativistic mass, mass–energy equivalence, a universal speed limit and relativity of simultaneity. It has replaced the conventional notion of an absolute universal time with the notion of a time that is dependent on reference frame and spatial position. Rather than an invariant time interval between two events, there is an invariant spacetime interval. Combined with other laws of physics, the two postulates of special relativity predict the equivalence of mass and energy, as expressed in the mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum.A defining feature of special relativity is the replacement of the Galilean transformations of Newtonian mechanics with the Lorentz transformations. Time and space cannot be defined separately from each other. Rather, space and time are interwoven into a single continuum known as spacetime. Events that occur at the same time for one observer can occur at different times for another.
Not until Einstein developed general relativity, introducing a curved spacetime to incorporate gravity, was the phrase "special relativity" employed. A translation that has often been used is "restricted relativity"; "special" really means "special case".The theory is "special" in that it only applies in the special case where the spacetime is flat, i.e., the curvature of spacetime, described by the energy-momentum tensor and causing gravity, is negligible. In order to include gravity, Einstein formulated general relativity in 1915. Special relativity, contrary to some outdated descriptions, is capable of handling accelerations as well as accelerated frames of reference.As Galilean relativity is now considered an approximation of special relativity that is valid for low speeds, special relativity is considered an approximation of general relativity that is valid for weak gravitational fields, i.e. at a sufficiently small scale (for tidal forces) and in conditions of free fall. Whereas general relativity incorporates noneuclidean geometry in order to represent gravitational effects as the geometric curvature of spacetime, special relativity is restricted to the flat spacetime known as Minkowski space. As long as the universe can be modeled as a pseudo-Riemannian manifold, a Lorentz-invariant frame that abides by special relativity can be defined for a sufficiently small neighborhood of each point in this curved spacetime.
Galileo Galilei had already postulated that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest (no privileged reference frames), a principle now called Galileo's principle of relativity. Einstein extended this principle so that it accounted for the constant speed of light, a phenomenon that had been recently observed in the Michelson–Morley experiment. He also postulated that it holds for all the laws of physics, including both the laws of mechanics and of electrodynamics.Speed
In everyday use and in kinematics, the speed of an object is the magnitude of its velocity (the rate of change of its position); it is thus a scalar quantity. The average speed of an object in an interval of time is the distance travelled by the object divided by the duration of the interval; the instantaneous speed is the limit of the average speed as the duration of the time interval approaches zero.
Speed has the dimensions of distance divided by time. The SI unit of speed is the metre per second, but the most common unit of speed in everyday usage is the kilometre per hour or, in the US and the UK, miles per hour. For air and marine travel the knot is commonly used.
The fastest possible speed at which energy or information can travel, according to special relativity, is the speed of light in a vacuum c = 299792458 metres per second (approximately 1079000000 km/h or 671000000 mph). Matter cannot quite reach the speed of light, as this would require an infinite amount of energy. In relativity physics, the concept of rapidity replaces the classical idea of speed.Speed of Light (Iron Maiden song)
"Speed of Light" is a song by the English heavy metal band Iron Maiden from their sixteenth studio album, The Book of Souls. The song was released as a music video on 14 August 2015 and was also made available as a digital download and issued as a single-track CD exclusive to Best Buy in the US.Tachyon
A tachyon () or tachyonic particle is a hypothetical particle that always travels faster than light. Most physicists believe that faster-than-light particles cannot exist because they are not consistent with the known laws of physics. If such particles did exist, they could be used to build a tachyonic antitelephone and send signals faster than light, which (according to special relativity) would lead to violations of causality. No experimental evidence for the existence of such particles has been found.
The possibility of particles moving faster-than-light was first proposed by O. M. P. Bilaniuk, V. K. Deshpande, and E. C. G. Sudarshan in 1962, although the term they used for it was "meta-particle". In the 1967 paper that coined the term, Gerald Feinberg proposed that tachyonic particles could be quanta of a quantum field with imaginary mass. However, it was soon realized that excitations of such imaginary mass fields do not under any circumstances propagate faster than light, and instead the imaginary mass gives rise to an instability known as tachyon condensation. Nevertheless, in modern physics the term "tachyon" often refers to imaginary mass fields rather than to faster-than-light particles. Such fields have come to play a significant role in modern physics.
The term comes from the Greek: ταχύ, tachy, meaning "rapid". The complementary particle types are called luxons (which always move at the speed of light) and bradyons (which always move slower than light); both of these particle types are known to exist.Variable speed of light
A variable speed of light (VSL) is a feature of a family of hypotheses stating that the speed of light in vacuum, usually denoted by c, may in some way not be constant, e.g. varying in space or time, or depending on frequency.
A variable speed of light occurs in some situations of classical physics as equivalent formulations of accepted theories, but also in various alternative theories of gravitation and cosmology, many of them non-mainstream.
Notable attempts to incorporate a variable speed of light into physics have been made by Einstein in 1911, by Robert Dicke in 1957, and by several researchers starting from the late 1980s.
The speed of light in vacuum instead is considered a constant, and defined by the SI as 299792458 m/s. Variability of the speed of light is therefore equivalent with a variability of the SI meter and/or the SI second.
VSL should not be confused with faster than light theories; nor should it be confused with the fact that the speed of light in a medium is slower than the speed of light in vacuum depending on the medium's refractive index.Warp drive
A warp drive is a fictitious superluminal spacecraft propulsion system in many science fiction works, most notably Star Trek. A spacecraft equipped with a warp drive may travel at speeds greater than that of light by many orders of magnitude. In contrast to some other fictitious FTL technologies such as a jump drive, the warp drive does not permit instantaneous travel between two points, but rather involves a measurable passage of time which is pertinent to the concept. In contrast to hyperdrive, spacecraft at warp velocity would continue to interact with objects in "normal space." The general concept of "warp drive" was introduced by John W. Campbell in his 1931 novel Islands of Space.Einstein's theory of special relativity states that energy and mass are interchangeable, and speed of light travel is impossible for material objects that weigh more than photons. The problem of a material object exceeding light speed is that an infinite amount of kinetic energy would be required to travel at exactly the speed of light. This can theoretically be solved by warping space to move an object instead of increasing the kinetic energy of the object to do so. Such a solution to the faster than light travel problem leads to two directly opposite approaches to light-speed travel in science fiction: in the first, spaceships themselves are brought to light speed and beyond; in the second, not-yet-local space itself is made to come to the ship while the ship moves at sub-light speeds.Wavenumber
In the physical sciences, the wavenumber (also wave number or repetency) is the spatial frequency of a wave, measured in cycles per unit distance or radians per unit distance. Whereas temporal frequency can be thought of as the number of waves per unit time, wavenumber is the number of waves per unit distance.
In multidimensional systems, the wavenumber is the magnitude of the wave vector. The space of wave vectors is called reciprocal space. Wave numbers and wave vectors play an essential role in optics and the physics of wave scattering, such as X-ray diffraction, neutron diffraction, and elementary particle physics. For quantum mechanical waves, the wavenumber multiplied by Planck's constant is the canonical momentum.
Wavenumber can be used to specify quantities other than spatial frequency. In optical spectroscopy, it is often used as a unit of temporal frequency assuming a certain speed of light.
Extremes of motion