Matter & Energy

Matter is composed of atoms or groups of atoms called molecules. The arrangement of particles in a material depends on the physical state of the substance. In a solid, particles form a compact structure that resists flow. Particles in a liquid have more energy than those in a solid. They can flow past one another, but they remain close. Particles in a gas have the most energy. They move rapidly and are separated from one another by relatively large distances.

Measuring Light

B. Speed of Light

Scientists have defined the speed of light in a vacuum to be exactly 299,792,458 meters per second (about 186,000 miles per second). This definition is possible because since 1983, scientists have known the distance light travels in one second more accurately than the definition of the standard meter. Therefore, in 1983, scientists defined the meter as 1/299,792,458, the distance light travels through a vacuum in one second. This precise measurement is the latest step in a long history of measurement, beginning in the early 1600s with an unsuccessful attempt by Italian scientist Galileo to measure the speed of lantern light from one hilltop to another.

The first successful measurements of the speed of light were astronomical. In 1676 Danish astronomer Olaus Roemer noticed a delay in the eclipse of a moon of Jupiter when it was viewed from the far side as compared with the near side of Earth’s orbit. Assuming the delay was the travel time of light across Earth’s orbit, and knowing roughly the orbital size from other observations, he divided distance by time to estimate the speed.

English physicist James Bradley obtained a better measurement in 1729. Bradley found it necessary to keep changing the tilt of his telescope to catch the light from stars as Earth went around the Sun. He concluded that Earth’s motion was sweeping the telescope sideways relative to the light that was coming down the telescope. The angle of tilt, called the stellar aberration, is approximately the ratio of the orbital speed of Earth to the speed of light. (This is one of the ways scientists determined that Earth moves around the Sun and not vice versa.)

In the mid-19th century, French physicist Armand Fizeau directly measured the speed of light by sending a narrow beam of light between gear teeth in the edge of a rotating wheel. The beam then traveled a long distance to a mirror and came back to the wheel where, if the spin were fast enough, a tooth would block the light. Knowing the distance to the mirror and the speed of the wheel, Fizeau could calculate the speed of light. During the same period, the French physicist Jean Foucault made other, more accurate experiments of this sort with spinning mirrors.

Scientists needed accurate measurements of the speed of light because they were looking for the medium that light traveled in. They called the medium ether, which they believed waved to produce the light. If ether existed, then the speed of light should appear larger or smaller depending on whether the person measuring it was moving toward or away from the ether waves. However, all measurements of the speed of light in different moving reference frames gave the same value.

In 1887 American physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward Morley performed a very sensitive experiment designed to detect the effects of ether. They constructed an interferometer with two light beams—one that pointed along the direction of Earth’s motion, and one that pointed in a direction perpendicular to Earth’s motion. The beams were reflected by mirrors at the ends of their paths and returned to a common point where they could interfere. Along the first beam, the scientists expected Earth’s motion to increase or decrease the beam’s velocity so that the number of wave cycles throughout the path would be changed slightly relative to the second beam, resulting in a characteristic interference pattern. Knowing the velocity of Earth, it was possible to predict the change in the number of cycles and the resulting interference pattern that would be observed. The Michelson-Morley apparatus was fully capable of measuring it, but the scientists did not find the expected results.

The paradox of the constancy of the speed of light created a major problem for physical theory that German-born American physicist Albert Einstein finally resolved in 1905. Einstein suggested that physical theories should not depend on the state of motion of the observer. Instead, Einstein said the speed of light had to remain constant, and all the rest of physics had to be changed to be consistent with this fact. This special theory of relativity predicted many unexpected physical consequences, all of which have since been observed in nature.