Exploring the Maximum Speed of Light

In summary, light has a maximum speed because that is the speed at which electromagnetic waves propagate. Special relativity imposes a limit on the speed of massless particles, and this limit is c.
  • #1
bluegold
6
0
Why does light or anything have a finite speed? In E=mc2, it gives the constant of the speed of light but I don't understand why light has a maximum speed. Is there something that slows down light?
 
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  • #2
It's not that c is light's maximum speed. It is that c is its only speed. The simplest theory of what light is -- electromagnetic theory -- describes light as a wave consisting of oscillating electric and magnetic fields. This theory shows directly that c is the speed at which those waves propagate (in a vacuum).

The result that nothing with mass can reach c comes from Special Relativity (SR). To get SR, we postulate that the laws of physics must be the same for all inertial observers. From this we conclude that there must be a universal maximum speed for the propagation of information, otherwise it would be possible to violate causality (effects could precede causes) and there goes the logical foundation for everything. It just so happens that this max speed is the speed of light, but we would come to the same conclusion from the same starting assumptions in a universe without light. It's built into the structure of spacetime.
 
  • #3
I thought that light travels different speeds depending on what medium that it is in. Is it possible light goes a set speed because a vacuum is just another medium with things that slow light down? or is it just a random speed that light or whatever energy moves at?
 
  • #4
bluegold said:
I thought that light travels different speeds depending on what medium that it is in.

Yes, electromagnetic waves travel at different speeds in different media. This arises naturally from electromagnetic theory. Another (quantum) way of looking at light, however, is as photons -- particles that have wavelike properties*. Now, photons *always* travel at c, and the explanation for why light is slowed down in materials is that although each individual photon travels at c, photons are constantly being destroyed and recreated during their interactions with matter. So, the overall progress of the light through the medium is slowed down.

*note: all particles have wavelike properties, not just photons.

bluegold said:
Is it possible light goes a set speed because a vacuum is just another medium with things that slow light down?

No, they don't travel at c because "something" in a vacuum is preventing them from moving any faster. They travel at c because that is a fundamental property of electromagnetic waves (as prescribed by the theory). Electromagnetic waves travel at c in a vacuum. Or, if you want to look at it from the photon picture, photons are massless particles, and special relativity restricts massless particles from moving at any speed other than c (they can neither move slower nor faster).

bluegold said:
or is it just a random speed that light or whatever energy moves at?

Yes and no. Yes, that is just the speed at which light travels. No, it is not "random" in the sense of being arbitrary. It is predicted by theory and holds up in experiment.

I think you might be missing a fundamental point that I tried to make before, which is that the idea of a maximum possible speed for the propagation of information (and, as it turns out, particles) arises naturally in the formulation of physical theories.
 
  • #5
Thank you very much, this explanation helps me greatly.
 

1. What is the maximum speed of light?

The maximum speed of light, also known as the speed of light in a vacuum, is approximately 299,792,458 meters per second.

2. How was the maximum speed of light determined?

The maximum speed of light was first determined by the famous scientist, Albert Einstein, in his theory of special relativity. He showed that the speed of light is a constant and is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or the source of the light.

3. Can anything travel faster than the speed of light?

According to our current understanding of physics, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases and it requires an infinite amount of energy to reach the speed of light. Therefore, it is impossible for anything to exceed the speed of light.

4. How does the maximum speed of light impact space travel?

The maximum speed of light poses a significant challenge for space travel. As we approach the speed of light, the amount of energy needed to accelerate a spacecraft increases exponentially. This makes it difficult to reach other stars or galaxies within a reasonable amount of time.

5. Is the maximum speed of light a fundamental limit in the universe?

As of now, the maximum speed of light is considered to be a fundamental limit in the universe. However, some scientists are exploring the possibility of faster-than-light travel through concepts such as wormholes and warp drives. These ideas are still in the realm of theoretical physics and require further research and understanding.

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