physicists all wrong about the speed of
You might think so, given the stories posted recently about a new paper suggesting that light travels a bit
more slowly than the 186,000-miles-a-second figure that’s familiar to generations of science geeks.
paper’s author, University of Maryland, Baltimore County physicist Dr. James Franson, said his work had been “sensationalized” in some of the stories, including one
Suggests Speed Of Light Might Be Slower Than Thought.”
And Franson isn’t the only physicist who takes a
dim view of the coverage. So does celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“The speed of light has almost
mythical significance in physics,” Tyson told The Huffington Post in an email. “But to be honest, the headline in this case needs to say something like ‘New
Calculations Suggest that the Speed of Light May Be 0.0000003% Slower Than We Thought,’ which then might not have garnered any headlines at all.”
In the paper, Franson argues that a“corrected” value for the speed of light might help explain a puzzle stemming from observations of a
supernova that exploded in 1987.
Following its explosion, astronomers observed photons (particles of light) and
nearly massless particles known as neutrinos streaming fromSupernova 1987a, Franson told The Huffington Post in an email, adding that photons and neutrinos have been thought to travel
at roughly the same speed. But the first photons from the supernova, which was located in a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way known as the Large
Magellanic Cloud, were observed much later than the first neutrinos — a discrepancy that astronomers were hard pressed to explain.
Franson’s paper offers calculations suggesting a possible explanation for the anomaly, as he explained
So if we’ve been wrong
about the speed of light, it’s only by the tiniest bit. And Franson said that, in the absence of corroborating evidence, “we should be skeptical about these
Tyson, too, stressed the preliminary nature of the calculations. “If the author’s calculations are correct,” “then the speed of
light may drop measurably… If true, this would be an important result for physics.”
What’s the takeaway? Maybe this: When it comes to accepting a new
value for fastest speed in the universe, let’s take it nice and slow.