How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1262

I recently read in a sales brochure for a major international energy services company that the speed of light had been exceeded in 1995. Is this true? If so, could you explain how this was accomplished? — TS
For very fundamental reasons, the speed of light in vacuum cannot be exceeded. Calling it the "speed of light" is something of a misnomer—it is the fundamental speed at which all massless particles travel. Since light was the first massless particle to be studied in detail, it was the first particle seen to travel at this special speed.

While nothing can travel faster than this special speed, it's easy to go slower. In fact, light itself travels more slowly than this when it passes through a material. Whenever light encounters matter, its interactions with the charged particles in that matter delay its movement. For example, light travels only about 2/3 of its vacuum speed while traveling in glass. Because of this slowing of light, it is possible for massive objects to exceed the speed at which light travels through a material. For example, if you send very, very energetic charged particles (such as those from a research accelerator) into matter, those particles may move faster than light can move in that matter. When this happens, the charged particles emit electromagnetic shock waves known as Cherenkov radiation—there is light emitted from each particle as it moves.

I suppose that the brochure could have been talking about this light/matter interaction. But since that effect has been observed for decades, there is nothing special about 1995. More likely, the brochure is talking about nonsense.


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