How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 1590: Does light speed up as it gets further from the sun?

Does light speed up as it gets further from the sun? The force of gravity has an effect on it, right? — JF, Ireland
Although that sounds like a simple question, it has a complicated answer. Gravity does affect light, but it doesn't affect light's speed. In empty space, light is always observed to travel at "The Speed of Light." But that remark hides a remarkable result: although two different observers will agree on how fast light is traveling, they may disagree in their perceptions of space and time.

When those observers are in motion relative to one another, they'll certainly disagree about the time and distance separating two events (say, two firecrackers exploding at separate locations). For modest relative velocities, their disagreement will be too small to notice. But as their relative motion increases, that disagreement will become substantial. That is one of the key insights of Einstein's special theory of relativity.

But even when two observers are not moving relative to one another, gravity can cause them to disagree about the time and distance separating two events. When those observers are in different gravitational circumstances, they'll perceive space and time differently. That effect is one of the key insights of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Here is a case in point: suppose two observers are in separate spacecraft, hovering motionless relative to the sun, and one observer is much closer to the sun than the other. The closer observer has a laser pointer that emits a green beam toward the farther observer. Both observers will see the light pass by and measure its speed. They'll agree that the light is traveling at "The Speed of Light". But they will not agree on the exact frequency of the light. The farther observer will see the light as slightly lower in frequency (redder) than the closer observer. Similarly, if the farther observer sends a laser pointer beam toward the closer observer, the closer observer will see the light as slightly higher in frequency (bluer) than the farther observer.

How can these two observers agree on the speed of the beams but disagree on their frequencies (and colors)? They perceive space and time differently! Time is actually passing more slowly for the closer observer than for the farther observer. If they look carefully at each others' watches, the farther observer will see the closer observer's watch running slow and the closer observer will see the farther observer's watch running fast. The closer observer is actually aging slightly more slowly than the farther observer.

These effects are usually very subtle and difficult to measure, but they're real. The global positioning system relies on ultra-precise clocks that are carried around the earth in satellites. Those satellites move very fast relative to us and they are farther from the earth's center and its gravity than we are. Both difference affect how time passes for those satellites and the engineers who designed and operate the global positioning system have to make corrections for the time-space effects of special and general relativity.

         

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