Monday, April 29, 2013

Speed of Light May Not Be Constant, Phycisists Say

The speed of light is constant, or so textbooks say. But some scientists are exploring the possibility that this cosmic speed limit changes, a consequence of the nature of the vacuum of space.

The definition of the speed of light has some broader implications for fields such as cosmology and astronomy, which assume a stable velocity for light over time. For instance, the speed of light comes up when measuring the fine structure constant (alpha), which defines the strength of the electromagnetic force. And a varying light speed would change the strengths of molecular bonds and the density of nuclear matter itself.

A non-constant speed of light could mean that estimates of the size of the universe might be off. 

(Unfortunately, it won't necessarily mean we can travel faster than light, because the effects of physics theories such as relativity are a consequence of light's velocity). [10 Implications of Faster-Than-Light Travel]

Two papers, published in the European Physics Journal D in March, attempt to derive the speed of light from the quantum properties of space itself. Both propose somewhat different mechanisms, but the idea is that the speed of light might change as one alters assumptions about how elementary particles interact with radiation. Both treat space as something that isn't empty, but a great big soup of virtual particles that wink in and out of existence in tiny fractions of a second.

Cosmic vacuum and light speed

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