Light Speed Implications Are Staggering

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Posted on June 27, 2014 in Astronomy, Cosmology, Dating Methods, Philosophy of Science, Physics

A new paper revises the speed of light.  This could change everything in the universe.

Since Einstein, what factor other than c, the speed of light, is more fundamental to modern physics and cosmology?  From E=mc2 to GPS, the speed of light shows up everywhere in equations and models of the universe.  What if that were to change, even a slight bit?  Everything.  PhysOrg asks,

The theory of general relativity suggests that light travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum. It’s the c in Einstein’s famous equation after all, and virtually everything measured in the cosmos is based on it—in short, it’s pretty important. But, what if it’s wrong?

A paper in the New Journal of Physics might turn heads in the scientific community with that suggestion.  J. D. Franson [U of Maryland] proposes that the speed of light can be altered by quantum effects, when photons in transmit very briefly split into antiparticles (a positron and an electron) and back again.  The energy of these interactions could slow down the photons slightly.  For support, he notes that light rays arrived inexplicably later than neutrinos, by 4.7 hours, from Supernova 1987A.  Accounting for that delay with his theory of vacuum polarization would have the effect of altering c over distances.

Supernova 1987A is only 168,000 light years away, but many objects are vastly farther—millions of light years away.  The differences in predicted and actual transmit times could be correspondingly large.  The article says the implications could be staggering:

If Franson’s ideas turn out to be correct, virtually every measurement taken and used as a basis for cosmological theory, will be wrong. Light from the sun for example, would take longer to reach us than thought, and light coming from much more distant objects, such as from the Messier 81 galaxy, a distance of 12 million light years, would arrive noticeably later than has been calculated—about two weeks later. The implications are staggering—distances for celestial bodies would have to be recalculated and theories that were created to describe what has been observed would be thrown out. In some cases, astrophysicists would have to start all over from scratch.

The announcement led to some lively exchanges in the comments.

CEH is not necessarily endorsing Franson’s claim, though some creation organizations may wish to pursue the ramifications for cosmology.  We are using this announcement to show that, in science, there are very serious, basic, fundamental things scientists think they know that may not be actually true.  Empirical adequacy and predictive success are not necessarily reliable indicators of objective reality.



rheinberger June 27, 2014

Whilst I fully appreciate that you state you are using this announcement to show that, in science, there are very serious, basic, fundamental things scientists think they know that may not be actually true, but surely, this new possibility would actually increase the age of the Universe, wouldn’t it? If it were found that the speed of light was faster than it is believed to be now, then we, as Biblical Creationists would be in a far better position to argue “for” a 6–10,000 year old Universe. Thank you for your continuing source of really interesting facts.

Editor June 27, 2014

Such a tiny change in the speed of light is not relevant to the question of the actual age vs apparent age of the universe for either position. That question needs other evidential and/or philosophical support. The article and commentary relate only to the vulnerable nature of scientific knowledge.

DaveD June 27, 2014

Might this have an effect on red-shift? Whatever is slowing light down could reasonably be expected to change it in some way.

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