June 27, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Light Speed Implications Are Staggering

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.


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  • rheinberger says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

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

  • AlanUK says:

    The author of the paper in New Journal of Physics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County physicist Dr. James Franson, said his work had been “sensationalized” in some of the stories, including one entitled “Physicist Suggests Speed Of Light Might Be Slower Than Thought” – that is the Phys.org one.

    There certainly does not seem to be much connection between Bob Yirka’s Phys.org article and Dr. Franson’s paper:

    “The theory of general relativity suggests that light travels at a constant speed of 299,792,458 meters per second in a vacuum.” [Bob Yirka]

    “Einstein was the first to predict that the velocity of light would be reduced by a gravitational potential [37]. According to general relativity [38, 39], the speed of light as measured in a global reference frame is given by
    Equation (1)” [Dr. Franson]

    Yirka could not have got it more wrong. Things just go downhill from there: how did he calculate the effect on light from M81 when Franson does not give it in his paper?

    Even if this does turn out to be a real effect, it makes no difference to the measurement of inter-stellar distances because such measurements are nowhere near so precise.

    Elsewhere Franson writes:

    “What is new about my calculations is that they suggest that a gravitational field may slow light down slightly more than it does other particles, such as neutrinos. Neutrinos have extremely small masses and they travel very nearly at the speed of light as a result. My calculations suggest that the velocity of light may be slowed down by a few parts per billion more than the neutrinos.”

    The last paragraph of Franson’s paper is very revealing:

    “Quantum mechanics and general relativity are two of the most fundamental laws of physics. Combining these two theories in a consistent way is currently one of the major goals of physics research. The predicted correction to the speed of light in a gravitational potential may be of further interest if the currently-accepted principles of quantum mechanics and general relativity are eventually found to be incompatible in some way.”

    Although this paper has been up on arXiv.org since 2011 in various versions it seems to have been ignored by the popular press. Now thanks to Phys.org this inaccurate story is all round the Internet and has even been published in the Daily Mail. (That is a UK newspaper not noted for scientific accuracy.)

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