Photon in a box

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Summary:
Does a photon in a box undergo cosmological red shift over time?
When a photon travels from a distant galaxy to us it undergoes an increase in wavelength due to the expansion of the universe during the time of flight. On the other hand, physical objects such as atoms and galaxies do not undergo a similar expansion because they are bound together by elctromagnetic and other forces. My question is this: suppose you put one or more photons into a box which has 100% perfectly reflecting walls. Will the photon(s) in the box experience a cosmological red shift over time or not? If so - why? and if not -why not?
 
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  • #2
phinds
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The box would be a bound system, so the speed at which it is traveling (and likewise its recession velocity) relative to another object would be irrelevant.
 
  • #3
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As usual I have not expressed myself clearly enough. The box is not moving. It is stationary with respect to the universe. I put photons with a wavelength of 600nm in the box and then look at them 10 billion years later when the scale factor of the univers is twice its current value. What will I expect their wavelength to be?
 
  • #4
Ibix
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if not -why not?
You would see redshift if the distance between the box walls was growing with time. It isn't, so you'd expect the radiation to always have the same wavelength.
 
  • #5
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But this begs the question - what mechanism prevents the photons bouncing around inside the box from being cosmologically red shifted during those periods of time when they are travelling from one side of the box to another while their friends outside the box are expanding?
 
  • #6
Ibix
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But this begs the question - what mechanism prevents the photons bouncing around inside the box from being cosmologically red shifted during those periods of time when they are travelling from one side of the box to another while their friends outside the box are expanding?
The thing to realise is that the matter that fills an FLRW universe is a fluid of uniform and decreasing density. Each little elementary bit of it moves on a particular family of geodesics. The walls of the box do not follow that family and are not changing density, because they are tied together. This is also true of other bound systems such as galaxies, which is why cosmological redshift only appears at really large scales. Light (and it's better not to talk about photons because they are horribly complex bits of quantum field theory that just introduce unnecessary complexity) that interacts with the box walls is therefore not following the same kind of path as free travelling light.
 
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  • #7
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That's very interesting. I think what you are saying is that, if the box is small (i.e. smaller than a galaxy!) quantum theory requires that the whole system, box plus light, is considered and that you cannot simply isolate the two components and treat them seperately. In such a box there would be no increase in wavelength.

This raises two interesing questions. Firstly, how big does the box have to be to show an effect - after all, if the box is as big as the universe, then presumably, we are back to the standard cosmological red shift.

Secondly, does general relativity on its own have an answer to this question - i.e. on the basis of physics as conceived by Einstein in about 1920? In other words, is GR complete or is it necessary to invoke quantum ideas to explain the behaviour of the universe on a cosmological scale. If this is the case, does this not suggest a profound link between the two theories which needs exploring?
 
  • #8
Ibix
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I think what you are saying is that, if the box is small (i.e. smaller than a galaxy!) quantum theory requires that the whole system, box plus light, is considered and that you cannot simply isolate the two components and treat them seperately.
No. Quantum theory does not come into this. The point I was making is that you should not try to include quantum mechanical objects (especially photons) in this because they are very complicated and classical physics is more than sufficient.

In an ideal FLRW universe, the whole of space is uniformly filled with matter and every piece is expanding away from every other piece. In this idealised case, two particles arbitrarily close together at some time will move further and further apart. You've added a box which does not expand because it not just a dust cloud - it's a bound solid object. Light interacting with it behaves differently to any other light in this spacetime because it's interacting with a solid object that is not expanding.

The real universe is like an FLRW universe at very large scales, hundreds of millions of light years and more. But smaller than that, the universe is very inhomogeneous and is full of bound systems like galaxies. So if we establish radio stations at opposite edges of the galaxy and they just bounce radio signals back and forth for the rest of eternity this is the same as your mirrored box.
Firstly, how big does the box have to be to show an effect
It isn't the size of the box. It's that the box walls are bound together and not just clouds of dust.
does general relativity on its own have an answer to this question
No quantum theory is needed for this. The only place quantum gravity is expected to enter cosmology is at the very beginning when the universe was super dense and high energy.
 
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  • #9
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Well I am relieved to hear you say that quatum theory is not needed in order to resolve this puzzle because I am strongly biased in favour of GR. If GR is a Bach fugue, then QT is a piece by Schoenberg!

But the puzzle remains. Why do electromagnetic waves travelling through empty space change their wavelength while electromagnetic waves bouncing round inside a box stay the same? I think what you are trying to say is that the 'particles of matter' which you say fill entire space expand outside the box but not inside it. I am not entirely happy with the idea that 'space is uniformly filled with matter'. I would perhaps prefer to go back to the old (discredited?) idea of the 'aether'. Outside the box the aether (which is essentially a coordinate system, not a real substance) expands but inside a bound system the 'aether' does not expand.
 
  • #10
PeroK
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But the puzzle remains. Why do electromagnetic waves travelling through empty space change their wavelength ...
They don't. Redshift is always due to the relationship between the source and receiver.
 
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  • #11
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Summary:: Does a photon in a box undergo cosmological red shift over time?

When a photon travels from a distant galaxy to us it undergoes an increase in wavelength due to the expansion of the universe during the time of flight. On the other hand, physical objects such as atoms and galaxies do not undergo a similar expansion because they are bound together by elctromagnetic and other forces. My question is this: suppose you put one or more photons into a box which has 100% perfectly reflecting walls. Will the photon(s) in the box experience a cosmological red shift over time or not? If so - why? and if not -why not?

So the problem is this:

A pulse of light travels from a distant galaxy to us, undergoing an increase in wavelength due to the expansion of the universe while it's traveling.

There's another pulse of light too, but there's a mirror 3 light years ahead of it. So this pulse of light is in a box.

Now it seems absurd to say that the latter pulse of light is not expanding, while the former pulse of light is expanding.

Right?
 
  • #12
Ibix
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Why do electromagnetic waves travelling through empty space change their wavelength
They don't. Wavelength is not a property of a wave alone - it also depends who is doing the measuring. If you stand in a corridor and I run along it and we are both illuminated by a laser we will measure it to have different wavelengths because we see each other's rulers as length contracted. In cosmology this comes in because each succesive galaxy a wave passes is moving away from the light source faster and faster. The same is not happening to the light in the box - it's just bouncing backwards and forwards in the box.

I think what you are trying to say is that the 'particles of matter' which you say fill entire space expand outside the box but not inside it.
The point is that "the expansion of space" is just good old Newton's first law, complicated by curved spacetime. A cloud of dust completely filling spacetime expands because that's what an everywhere uniform cloud of dust does in GR. Your box is not a cloud of dust - you've bound its atoms together so they do not move apart any more than those of a cereal box.
I am not entirely happy with the idea that 'space is uniformly filled with matter'.
In reality it isn't. It is, to a very good approximation, uniformly filled with matter on scales so large that individual galaxies are indistinguishable dots. That means that a model universe everywhere uniformly filled with matter is a useful tool, but it does not mean that there is uniform matter everywhere at all scales. Manifestly there isn't. Kick the air and then a table if you don't believe me, but don't blame me if you break a toe on the latter.
 
  • #13
PeroK
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A pulse of light travels from a distant galaxy to us, undergoing an increase in wavelength due to the expansion of the universe while it's traveling.expandong
That's the same misconception as the OP has. The light is not changing. We measure a different wavelength from the source, but that's due to the relationship between the source and receiver, separated by expanding space.
 
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  • #14
Ibix
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That's the same misconception as the OP has.
I was about to comment something similar, but I decided @jartsa was paraphrasing the OP. If so, the post could do with something like "I think you are asking..." at the beginning to make it clear.
 
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I was about to comment something similar, but I decided @jartsa was paraphrasing the OP. If so, the post could do with something like "I think you are asking..." at the beginning to make it clear.
It seems to me that you guys have a hard time understanding the question. I tied to make the question more obvious.

Dust cloud filling expanding space expands. Does photon gas cloud filling expanding space expand? I mean is there extra expansion because of the expansion of space?
 
  • #16
PeroK
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It seems to me that you guys have a hard time understanding the question. I tied to make the question more obvious.

Dust cloud filling expanding space expands. Does photon gas filling expanding space expand?
Photons don't experience anything, so this thread is more about trying to correct the OP's misunderstanding of redshift. The question itself is easily answered once you realise it's all about the receiver relative to the source.
 
  • #17
Ibix
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It seems to me that you guys have a hard time understanding the question.
I understood the question. I'm not sure that the OP has completely grasped what he's asking about yet, though.

A direct answer to your variant is that, as already stated, light does not expand and wavelength is a property of the interaction between the wave and the detector not just the wave. So neither the light that strikes the mirror nor the light that bypasses it can be said to have expanded, contracted, or anything else. However, the mirror at 3ly is not moving away from the light source so will see the same wavelength that was emitted. But if Hubble's law applied so close to the source, the mirror would be doing a few centimeters per second compared to a Hubble-expanding object (a co-moving observer) so would measure the light to have a different wavelength to a sensor attached to the mirror.
Does photon gas filling expanding space expand?
As usual, don't talk about photons. But a radiation dominated universe certainly expands, yes.
 
  • #18
phinds
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As usual I have not expressed myself clearly enough. The box is not moving. It is stationary with respect to the universe.
There is no such thing. All motion is relative and the universe is not a "thing" that you can take as "stationary". The closest you can come to what you seem to want is a co-moving observer but that's really irrelevant and my statement stands.
 
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  • #19
PeterDonis
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physical objects such as atoms and galaxies do not undergo a similar expansion because they are bound together by elctromagnetic and other forces.
Correct.

suppose you put one or more photons into a box which has 100% perfectly reflecting walls. Will the photon(s) in the box experience a cosmological red shift over time or not? If so - why? and if not -why not?
No, for the same reason that you gave above for physical objects. The box itself is such an object, and does not expand; therefore the light you have contained inside the box will not experience any redshift, since that would require the box to have expanded.
 
  • #20
PeterDonis
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The box is not moving. It is stationary with respect to the universe.
This part does not matter. You could give the box a proper motion relative to comoving objects ("comoving" is the correct way to say what you are calling "stationary with respect to the universe") and it would still be a bound object and the light inside it would still undergo no cosmological redshift.
 
  • #21
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It seems to me that you guys have a hard time understanding the question. I tied to make the question more obvious.
It seems to me that you're introducing things that are not relevant and that is making a mess.

@Ibix answered this correctly in #4. If I am next to a mirrored box and watch it for a billion years, the wavelength is the same. If I am watching it from a distant galaxy, as the host galaxy recedes, the light in the box is redshifted.

If the objection is "yeah, but what does the One True Observer see?", there is no such observer.
 
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  • #22
PeterDonis
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what mechanism prevents the photons bouncing around inside the box from being cosmologically red shifted during those periods of time when they are travelling from one side of the box to another while their friends outside the box are expanding?
You have it backwards. You should be asking, what mechanism makes light moving freely in the universe undergo cosmological redshift? And the answer is, the mechanism has nothing to do with the light: it has to do with the fact that comoving observers are moving apart--the distance between them grows with the scale factor of the universe. And cosmological redshift is the redshift observed by comoving observers, for light that travels between them.

In other words, the "wavelength" of the light is not an intrinsic property of the light to begin with; it's a property of the relationship in spacetime between the light, the emitter, and the receiver. "Cosmological redshift" describes the outcome a particular kind of relationship in spacetime between those things; your scenario of "light trapped inside a box" describes a different such relationship, and therefore has a different outcome (no redshift).
 
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  • #23
PeterDonis
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Dust cloud filling expanding space expands. Does photon gas cloud filling expanding space expand?
You have it backwards. The dust cloud or the photon gas doesn't "fill expanding space" and expand because of that; the "expanding space" and the expanding dust cloud or photon gas are aspects of the same thing: the spacetime geometry and how it is determined by the distribution of matter and energy.

The photon gas cloud spacetime geometry is not the same as the dust cloud spacetime geometry, because the photon gas is relativistic (it has pressure equal to 1/3 its energy density) while the dust cloud is not (it has zero pressure), and pressure contributes to the stress-energy tensor. But in both cases the spacetime geometry and the distribution of stress-energy are linked by the Einstein Field Equation; neither one is determined in isolation.
 
  • #24
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I think Perok has put his finger on it when he said about wavelengths expanding
They don't. Redshift is always due to the relationship between the source and receiver.
That is exactly right. I think I see now. The wavelengths don't expand any more than objects travelling at near the speed of light physically contract. We are looking at the same object but from a different perspective. The truth is that, even though the galaxy which emits the light and the receiver on Earth are not moving with respect to each other (they are both 'comoving' observers) they do not share the same inertial frame. In the galaxies frame when the light was emitted it had a wavelength of 600 nm but in the Earth frame, 10 billion years later when the universe has expanded by a factor of two, the same wave appears to have a wavelength of 1200 nm.

On the other hand, the waves in the box stay in the same inertial frame the whole time because they are confined within a bound system. Their wavelengths therefore do not change.

Please correct me if this is incorrect.
 
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  • #25
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The wavelengths don't expand any more than objects travelling at near the speed of light physically contract.
They do physically contract.
 

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