Exceptions To The Rule: The Speed Of Light (And Gravity?)

Exceptions To The Rule: The Speed Of Light (And Gravity?)
By John Prytz

Within Relativity Theory, if there is anything that is not intuitive it is the fact that in the entire Universe, it is the speed of light (and gravity?) alone that is absolute or fixed, not something like space being absolute or time being absolute. It’s not intuitive in that all the other not-light bits and pieces that are in motion can be added or subtracted. The lone exception to that universal rule that velocities can be mathematically combined is the speed of light (and gravity?).

Repeat for emphasis: the anomaly here is that in any other scenario, anything that is not-light and in motion, velocities can be added and subtracted. Repeat again: with that one speed of light exception, velocities may be added or subtracted. If you are on a treadmill that’s moving left at 5 MPH, and you’re on it walking to the right at 5 MPH, to an external observer you are waking yet standing still. You’re much more likely to hit a home run if the wind is blowing towards the outfield fences; planes fly faster with a tailwind than with a headwind; you swim in the river faster going with the flow than against the current. If you are in a train that is moving at say 100 km/hour and you throw a ball at 10 km/hour in the direction at which the train is moving, to an observer outside the train, your ball is traveling at 110 km/hour. If you throw the ball towards the rear of the train, an outside observer will measure the ball as moving at 90 km/hour. If on the other hand, you shine a flashlight in the train, an outside observer will see the velocity of the resulting light beam moving at the speed of light – not the speed of light PLUS the velocity of the train, or the speed of light MINUS the velocity of the train, but at the speed of light! That’s nuts, but it’s scientifically nuts and been proven again and again in any experiment you care to devise. I have no issue with experimentally verified results. That doesn’t mean I don’t have issues with the anomaly.

The velocity of light is a constant to an external observer no matter what. Why that should be no one knows, but it is so. However, my take on this can of worms, which as a consequence requires somewhat counter-intuitively that both time and length have to be flexible, is one should always be a bit suspect when it comes to the lone ranger, the lone ranger being the exception to the rule*. I don’t tend to like exceptions to the rule. There’s something weird afoot here. Mother Nature is trying to tell us something we haven’t figured out yet.

All that said, the speed of light isn’t really a constant if you take into consideration the differing mediums that light can travel through. However, the speed of light is probably also a constant within whatever other medium it happens to be in. The speed of light in air at STP (standard temperature and pressure) is less than the speed of light in the relative vacuum of outer space; even less traveling through pure water and less again traveling through clear glass. One would presume that just as the speed of light in space is constant for observers regardless if they are traveling in a high velocity spaceship or as an astronaut ‘stationary’ on the International Space Station, the speed of light in water should be a constant for the crew in a submarine that’s underway thus in motion or a diver standing on the seabed.

That makes me sort of wonder, theoretically, if you could get an underwater submarine to go faster than the speed of light in water (or an aircraft to outpace the speed of light in air), though in either case that would be less than the speed of light in a vacuum, could you then claim, albeit with qualifiers (in water; in air), that you actually traveled faster than the speed of light, if only for the bragging rights?

Apart from light (photons), presumably gravity, or gravity-waves, also propagate at the speed of light and thus a gravity-wave would have a constant speed regardless of any frame of reference for any observer. But I also presume that necessitates finding the hypothetical graviton particle (to mirror the photon) and that, for the moment, resides in the unknown basket.

That brings up yet another puzzlement. Is gravity just geometry as per General Relativity or is gravity a force transmitted by a force particle, the theoretical graviton, and thus more akin to electromagnetism’s photons (infinite extension; obeys the inverse square relationship) apart from lacking EM’s negative counterpoint – in the case of gravity, that’s antigravity.

Speaking of gravity (gravitons) and light (photons), if gravity can have an effect on light (i.e. – the gravitational lens), then it should be a two-way street and light should be able to have an observable effect on gravity, but I can’t recall ever reading about that aspect of the relationship.

As per the speed of light being medium dependent; one speed in a vacuum, another in water, well that makes for an interesting question when considering gravity. If a gravity-wave is approaching Earth, will it have one constant velocity in the vacuum of space for all observers, then a differing velocity as it passes through our atmosphere, then another value as it passes through the ocean and yet others as it hits the various density layers inside the planet?

As is often the case, there tends to be more questions than answers!

*Not that the differing rules for the speed of light vis-�-vis other not-light velocities is the only exception to the rule in modern physics. Quantum tunneling is one of those exceptions to the rule of causality. With respect to the standard model of cosmology and the Big Bang, first there was nothing; then there was something. That means the Big Bang event created both matter and energy out of less than thin air. That’s also a free lunch and one of those exceptions to the rule of physical law usually expressed as the conservation of matter and energy. All these exceptions to the norm suggest that some of the final chapters in modern physics haven’t yet been written.

Science librarian; retired.

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