MadSci Network: Physics

Re: Why is the speed of light considered the highest speed ?

Area: Physics
Posted By: John Link, Physics
Date: Fri Oct 17 15:41:40 1997
Area of science: Physics
ID: 876881858.Ph

Your first statement is "Because it was a supposition and unproven...". Actually, there are MANY experimental confirmations that the theory of relativity is a good and correct theory, and, therefore, we can take the speed light, c, as the fastest possible speed.

Another of your statements is "Because of e=mc^2, light has mass." Unfortunately you have misapplied the equation. It is intended to give the equivalence of energy to mass, but not to assign mass. It has been shown very well that photons do NOT have mass.

Another of your statements is "Light will slow down when entering an optically dense medium." Actually this is not quite true. While it is true that we measure a lower AVERAGE speed of the light through a medium, the propagation of light through the medium, between atoms, is actually at the normal vacuum speed of light, c. What happens is that the light moves at speed c between atoms, but photons are "absorbed" by the medium's atoms. By "absorption" I mean that the energy of the photon causes an electron of the atom to be kicked to a higher energy level, and the photon ceases to exist. Then, after a very small time delay, the electron goes back to its original (usually ground state) energy and "emits" a photon of the same energy (and thus same frequency and thus same wavelength) as the original "absorbed" photon. (In fluorescent materials the energy of the photon is downshifted, but I am talking here of "elastic", or non-energy shifting, absorptions.) It is this very small time delay which makes us measure the average "speed of light" through the medium as slower than the vacuum speed of light. But, again, between atoms the light does travel at the speed c.

Please look at the archives of the MadSci Network, searching on "relativity". You will find many helpful questions and answers that are relevant to your question.

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