The speed of light is constant, or so textbooks say. But some scientists are exploring the possibility that this cosmic speed limit changes, a consequence of the nature of the vacuum of space.
The definition of the speed of light has some broader implications for fields such as cosmology and astronomy, which assume a stable velocity for light over time. For instance, the speed of light comes up when measuring the fine structure constant (alpha), which defines the strength of the electromagnetic force. And a varying light speed would change the strengths of molecular bonds and the density of nuclear matter itself.
A non-constant speed of light could mean that estimates of the size of the universe might be off. (Unfortunately, it won’t necessarily mean we can travel faster than light, because the effects of physics theories such as relativity are a consequence of light’s velocity).
Two papers, published in the European Physics Journal D in March, attempt to derive the speed of light from the quantum properties of space itself. Both propose somewhat different mechanisms, but the idea is that the speed of light might change as one alters assumptions about how elementary particles interact with radiation. Both treat space as something that isn’t empty, but a great big soup of virtual particles that wink in and out of existence in tiny fractions of a second.
Cosmic vacuum and light speed
The first, by lead author Marcel Urban of the Université du Paris-Sud, looks at the cosmic vacuum, which is often assumed to be empty space. The laws of quantum physics, which govern subatomic particles and all things very small, say that the vacuum of space is actually full of fundamental particles like quarks, called “virtual” particles. These matter particles, which are always paired up with their appropriate antiparticle counterpart, pop into existence and almost immediately collide. When matter and antimatter particles touch, they annihilate each other.
Photons of light, as they fly through space, are captured and re-emitted by these virtual particles. Urban and his colleagues propose that the energies of these particles — specifically the amount of charge they carry — affect the speed of light. Since the amount of energy a particle will have at the time a photon hits it will be essentially random, the effect on how fast photons move should vary too.
As such, the amount of time the light takes to cross a given distance should vary as the square root of that distance, though the effect would be very tiny — on the order of 0.05 femtoseconds for every square meter of vacuum. A femtosecond is a millionth of a billionth of a second. (The speed of light has been measured over the last century to high precision, on the order of parts per billion, so it is pretty clear that the effect has to be small.)
To find this tiny fluctuation, the researchers say, one could measure how light disperses at long distances. Some astronomical phenomena, such as gamma-ray bursts, produce pulses of radiation from far enough away that the fluctuations could be detected. The authors also propose using lasers bounced between mirrors placed about 100 yards apart, with a light beam bouncing between them multiple times, to seek those small changes.
Particle species and light speed
The second paper proposes a different mechanism but comes to the same conclusion that light speed changes. In that case, Gerd Leuchs and Luis Sánchez-Soto, from the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Light in Erlangen, Germany, say that the number of species of elementary particle that exist in the universe may be what makes the speed of light what it is.
Leuchs and Sanchez-Soto say that there should be, by their calculations, on the order of 100 “species” of particle that have charges. The current law governing particle physics, the Standard Model, identifies nine: the electron, muon, tauon, the six kinds of quark, photons and the W-boson. [Wacky Physics: The Coolest Little Particles in Nature]
The charges of all these particles are important to their model, because all of them have charges. A quantity called impedance depends on the sum of those charges. The impedance in turn depends on the permittivity of the vacuum, or how much it resists electric fields, as well as its permeability, or how well it supports magnetic fields. Light waves are made up of both an electric and magnetic wave, so changing those quantities (permittivity and permeability) will change the measured speed of light.
“We have calculated the permittivity and permeability of the vacuum as caused by those ephemeral virtual unstable elementary particles,” Soto-Sanchez wrote in an email to LiveScience. “It turns out, however, from such a simple model one can discern that those constants contain essentially equal contributions of the different types of electrically charged particle-antiparticle pairs: both, the ones known and those so far unknown to us.”
Both papers say that light interacts with virtual particle-antiparticle pairs. In Leuchs’ and Sanchez-Soto’s model, the impedance of the vacuum (which would speed up or slow down the speed of light) depends on the density of the particles. The impedance relates to the ratio of electric fields to magnetic fields in light; every light wave is made up of both kinds of field, and its measured value, along with the permittivity of space to magnetic fields, governs the speed of light.
Some scientists are a bit skeptical, though. Jay Wacker, a particle physicist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, said he wasn’t confident about the mathematical techniques used, and that it seemed in both cases the scientists weren’t applying the mathematical tools in the way that most would. “The proper way to do this is with the Feynman diagrams,” Wacker said. “It’s a very interesting question [the speed of light],” he added, but the methods used in these papers are probably not sufficient to investigate it.
The other issue is that if there really are a lot of other particles beyond what’s in the Standard Model, then this theory needs some serious revision. But so far its predictions have been borne out, notably with the discovery of the Higgs boson. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any more particles to be found — but if they are out there they’re above the energies currently achievable with particle accelerators, and therefore pretty heavy, and it’s possible that their effects would have shown up elsewhere.