Slower speed of light and what it might mean


Photo by MC

Physicist James Franson of the University of Maryland tells us that the speed of light could be slower than what Albert Einstein told us. To refresh you memory that would be 186,282 miles or 299,792 km per second while traveling through a vacuum. If Franson’s finding is finally accepted by the scientific community, then its implications are staggering.

Franson’s finding is based a gap of 4.7 hours between the time neutrinos arrived on Earth from a supernova explosion recorded in 1987 and the light from it in the form of photons that followed. If the speed of light was universal and unchanging as Einstein so famously fixed, both photons and neutrinos should have arrived together. The observed fact that neutrinos, which are electrically neural subatomic particles, made it 4.7 hours before light as photons should mean that the latter had slowed down over a giant distance of 168,000 from the supernova SN 1987A and us. According to Franson’s calculations 4.7 hours fits very well with the slowing down in the speed of light that would have occurred over that distance.

The slowing down is caused because photons, under a condition known as vacuum polarization, split into positrons and electrons for a short time and them rejoin again. This process causes what is known as “gravitational differential” between the two particles. When the particles rejoin there would be what is known as an “energy impact” leading to the reduction in their speed. Such a slowdown may not be noticeable over relatively shorter distances, such as from the sun to us, but if Franson’s finding is accurate they have a significant presence over galactic and interstellar distances.

Lest you think that this rather lucid explanation is a result of my easy comprehension, I want to disabuse you of that notion. I understand this only very very broadly. Don’t be misled into thinking that I get it to the extent it may seem from the explanation.

The finding could essentially mean that everything we have based on the constancy of the speed of light might have to be redone completely. Let me give you an instance you might understand more quickly in everyday sense. This would mean the light of the sun has been taking longer to reach us than we have thought. That means the sun has been “rising” and “setting” at times other than we have believed. In an infinitesimally miniscule way, it could also mean that when I see you first you may have been there a little longer than I noticed you. So if you feel ignored for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond, please understand it is not me but the speed of light. But then comes the paradox—as far as we are concerned things become real only when we see them, irrespective of when they might have actually happened or materialized. I have written about this in this blog a couple of times earlier.

In this context, I am reminded of what was reported in September, 2011. Scientists at the Gran Sasso, one of the world’s largest physics laboratories, had then announced that neutrinos travel 5996 meters a second faster. That is 19,671.916 feet or 3.72574166 miles. That figure may not seem like a lot in and of itself but when you consider the absurdly long distances in the universe this would make an absurdly big difference. The basic point being that Einstein’s assertion that nothing can travel faster than light was coming under a serious challenge. What I wrote then bears repeating because this means that either neutrinos travel faster than light or light/photons travel slower than what have thought.

The scientists conducted the experiment to measure the speed of neutrinos by sending them from the European particle physics lab called CERN to the Gran Sasso on a 730 milometer underground journey repeatedly for three years. Some 15,000 neutrinos were used in the experiment but it is not known how many were harmed. (I had to slip that silly little crack in).

This finding is so enormously big that scientists around the world are probably looking askance at its implications, which are that everything that we know to be reality as determined by the Einsteinian physics could stand fundamentally disrupted.

Let me just cite one major mindfuck implication of this. The Guardian’s Ian Sample quotes Subir Sarkar, head of particle theory at Oxford University, as saying: "If this is proved to be true it would be a massive, massive event. It is something nobody was expecting.

"The constancy of the speed of light essentially underpins our understanding of space and time and causality, which is the fact that cause comes before effect.

"Cause cannot come after effect and that is absolutely fundamental to our construction of the physical universe. If we do not have causality, we are buggered."

Well said Professor Sarkar, we indeed are buggered if that is the case. Think of it this way. I exist without my parents doing anything to make it happen.


If the 2011 finding holds true, it could be that light indeed travels at the speed Einstein said. It is just that neutrinos travel faster.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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