What do we know that might (or might not) be so?

Start with the speed of light.

The recent report from CERN that they might have measured the velocity of a neutrino (that smallest of all small “particles”) at greater than the speed of light. stirred all kinds of people and ideas out of the woodwork. (Neutrinos pass straight through wood, also,). To their credit, the scientists at CERN put the information out and asked that others look at the data and tell them where they might have been in error. This last point shows in a small way just how firm is the conviction that the speed of light (c) is an absolute limit. We have gone from the determination that light travels, in a vacuum (another hypothetical environment), at 299,792,458 meters/second, to conversely, setting the definition of a meter to “the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458th of a second”.

So how do we “know” this fact? That even light has a determinable speed limit, not one that sets off an alarm when it is exceeded, not one like the (then hypothetical) four-minute mile, but one that can never be exceeded, by any means or any method? Well, we know it by many observations, by many experiments, including logical thought experiments, and most importantly, by the math.

The real question, then, is what (who?) sets that limit? What is it in the universe that stops light from traveling any faster, at least as far as we can tell now? It was once thought that all that apparently empty space out there was filled with something, an ether, that was not visible, but that might have an effect, like the air which is also invisible, but detectable by its effects, like when your hat blows off in the wind. Michelson and Morley in the 1870’s took care of that idea, at least as it regards the speed of light travelling through a particulate medium. But some, even Einstein, never abandoned the idea that some other kind of ether might actually exist. And today, we find many astronomers and physicists coming back to the notion that “something is out there!”. (Something has generated that “dark energy”, that “dark matter”.)

I’ve agreed with them in my own book “the picnic at the edge of the universe”, that something does exist, that it permeates our universe as well as the space outside the edges of this (finite) universe, and in fact is the primary generator of this one and possibly many others.

So now let’s reframe the original question  “Could the structure of this ether be what it is that has set the speed limit of light?” Well, one imagines that it might. We have observed that many media affect the velocity of other phenomena of motion. Water and air themselves slow down sound waves, magnetic fields, even light itself. Only something as small as what we call a neutrino can approach or equal that  outer limit. And we’ve seen that the path of light can be deflected by something as small as a glass prism, or as large as a galaxy. A cosmic ether, a universal electromagnetic field vibrating at a very high frequency, faster than gamma rays, which are the highest we have come close to measuring, might just be what sets that limit.

I’ve been asked what characteristics that medium would have to have that effect, and have speculated that it would have to have a very high frequency, one that we haven’t yet been able to observe or measure directly. And the clue as to what that frequency might be might be found in one of our smallest numbers, Planck’s Constant, itself derived from calculations of energy and its own relationship to the speed of light. So, the first guess for the frequency of the radiation making up the cosmos, both inside and outside of the universe, would seem to be 1/h, h being Planck’s Constant,  (calculated to be equal to 6.626068×10-34.). or about 0.15×1034 Hz.

This whole discussion, of course, ignores Einstein’s original point in General Relativity, that c remains constant whether you are moving or standing still, but that assertion in the math may still fall victim to the same kind of detection limit or error possibility that will probably explain the results of CERN’s neutrino experiment. We’ll see.

I welcome your thoughts.

About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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