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Speed of light constant in NON-vacuum?

  1. Aug 16, 2012 #1
    I know that the speed of light in a vacuum is always measured to be the same regardless of the observer's frame of reference. My question is, does the same apply to the speed of light as it travels through any non-vacuum medium? My gut feeling tells me yes, since its speed through the medium is simply an expression of the laws of physics, just as it is with no medium, which also remain the same no matter what your frame of reference relative to them is. Am I right?
     
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  3. Aug 16, 2012 #2

    ghwellsjr

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  4. Aug 16, 2012 #3
    I couldn't find a solid answer there. Either that or I didn't understand the explanation. Is the speed of light only less in matter because it reflects back and forth, or are the fundamental characteristics of the wave itself changed to propogate more slowly? Or none of the above?
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2012
  5. Aug 16, 2012 #4

    PAllen

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    This is wrong. You missed the example of Cerenkov radiation. Here, a massive particle goes faster than light through a medium. So, lab frame light is going one direction. Frame of this particle it is going the other direction. There can be particles which keep up with light in a medium. The aggregate speed of light in a medium is not fundamental at all, in the way speed of light in a vaccuum is.
     
  6. Aug 16, 2012 #5
    OK.... Let me make this simple, since I still don't know what the answer is or if you have even explained it.

    Say light travels at 0.9c through water, as measured from a stationary observer relative to the water. Will it travel at 0.9c through the water as measured by an observer moving 0.9c relative to the water?
     
  7. Aug 16, 2012 #6

    PAllen

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    No. I thought I answered exactly this question in my last post.
     
  8. Aug 16, 2012 #7

    Bill_K

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    The fundamental speed in nature is c, both inside the water and outside. Yes, light waves propagate more slowly in water, but as the Cerenkov example illustrates, the limiting speed is still c regardless. In water, particles can travel faster than light waves.
    Special relativity gives us a formula to combine velocities: v = (v1 + v2)/(1 + v1v2/c2). In your example, take v1 = v2 = 0.9 c.
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2012
  9. Aug 16, 2012 #8
    And I am familiar with this equation. I guess what I fundamentally don't understand is what is happening to light as it passes through a medium, and why it slows down.
     
  10. Aug 16, 2012 #9

    Bill_K

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    The passage of light through a medium is a collective motion involving the atoms/ions/molecules that constitute the substance. An atom exposed to a constant uniform electric field will become polarized, i.e. develop an electric dipole moment. An oscillating field will induce an oscillating dipole moment, and this itself generates an oscillating field that combines with the incident one. The wave we see is a superposition of all these contributions.

    If the index of refraction is greater than 1, the wave speed is less than c. But as the Wikipedia article on Refractive Index points out, the index of refraction is sometimes less than 1, and the wave speed is greater than c.

    In either case, note that it is the phase velocity we're talking about, not the group velocity or velocity with which energy is transmitted.
     
  11. Aug 16, 2012 #10

    PAllen

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    Note, though, for visible light in ordinary transparent media, the group velocity differs only slightly from the phase velocity.
     
  12. Aug 17, 2012 #11
    I think jmvizanko is asking is [itex]\frac{1}{\sqrt{\epsilon\mu}}[/itex] an invariant
     
  13. Aug 22, 2012 #12
    Interesting stuff, I would have thought in a vacuum there are simply no atoms in the way to absorb and re-emit photons but through a 'medium' it is interupted by them. Am I missing something here?
     
  14. Aug 22, 2012 #13
    Refraction is not exactly absorption and subsequent re-emission, but it does imply interference of matter with light. Light waves can be considered as propagating at c, whereby all the time primary waves are being replaced by retarded secondary waves as a result of the interaction with matter. That results in an effectively slowed down resultant wave. This was discussed in several threads (and also in post #9 here above).
    For more, see: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=613481
     
  15. Aug 22, 2012 #14
    Okay, I was fairly sure (but not certain) that was what Bill K's post was getting at; just dumbing it down to my level lol.
     
  16. Aug 22, 2012 #15
    the wavelength of the oscillating field is changed in a non vacuum medium.as wavelength in a medium=origional wavelength/n(n is refractive index).but as Bill K said the energy transfer rate is the same as c.if somebody is travelling at a speed of 0.9c in water then his clock will decelerate and acoordingly the relative velocities will be given by w=(v1+v2)/(1+v1V2/c^2) as per the frame of referrence.
     
  17. Aug 22, 2012 #16
    So it's not because the photons are being absorbed by atoms and re-emitted? Or in other words you are saying (and Bill K) that the rate at which the photon "moves" (absorbs/emits) through the atom is still c for it's original path?
     
  18. Aug 23, 2012 #17
    the atoms and molecules do come on the path.but the oscillating field that decides.it's a superposition principle of too many waves.but the energy transfer rate is a constant c.
     
  19. Aug 23, 2012 #18

    PAllen

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    Let's be clear about this:

    1) Phase velocity of the wave is slower (for normal materials) by the index of refraction.
    2) The constant for determining the physics of any microscopic interactions, and for velocity addition and time dilation, remains c.
    3) The energy and signal transport rate is (for normal materials) the group velocity, which will differ from the phase velocity by an amount related to the dispersion of the material. For light, in normal transparent media, this will differ by a very small amount from the phase velocity, and will be slower than the phase velocity.
     
  20. Aug 23, 2012 #19

    ZapperZ

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    Wait till many people discover that in waveguides, the speed of light even in vacuum can also be less than "c"!

    :)

    Hopefully, this will make people sit up and take notice of the difference between the phase velocity and the group velocity that have been mentioned.

    Zz.
     
  21. Aug 25, 2012 #20
    Thank you.actually I didn't know the concept very clearly.Now, i am getting what you want to say.You made me clear.
     
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