How Do Scientists Measure the Speed of Light?


How do scientists measure the speed of light?

Jack Fraser:

We don't.

No, seriously, we don't measure the speed of light (which always refers to the speed in a vacuum). We know exactly what the speed of light is.

It is: c = 299,792,458 meters per second.

And that is absolutely 100 percent accurate, with no measurement errors. The reason we know that that's exactly the speed of light is that we defined it to be that number.

We then take our definition of a second (the length of time for a certain number of periods of the radiation emitted in hyperfine transitions in caesium-133), and from that we define a meter. So the thing we would be measuring is what a meter is.

We use the speed of light as a fixed velocity, from which all observers can define their own length scale.

To measure the speed of light would require an external definition of what a meter is—and since about the 1970s, we don't have one.

And if you did want to measure the speed of light using this external distance reference, it's easy to test: You just release a light pulse at t=0 toward a mirror and then time how long it takes to get back to you. This is the exact principle that radar and sonar work on (although again, they measure the distance knowing the speed—but it works either way round).

Some background:

The meter was originally defined after the French Revolution, in about 1799. It was defined as 1⁄10,000,000 the distance between the equator and the pole.

The “meter” was formally defined from 1889 as the length of a platinum rod, held in a vault in Paris.

From this definition of a meter (and an old definition of a second), we measured (using the mirror-timing method, or based on astronomical observations) the speed of light to be about 299792458, plus a non-integer bit, and error bars from the measurement errors.

Eventually, we realized that having a meter defined by something there was only one of was a bit annoying. So, we attempted to define it in a way that anyone could replicate—without having to refer to a "standard object."

Therefore, we redefined the meter—using the speed of light.

The official definition of a meter today is: 1⁄299792458 of the distance traveled by light in a vacuum in one second, using the caesium definition of a second.

Therefore, this was exactly equivalent to defining the speed of light to be the number given above.

We chose that number (and not a more convenient number like 300,000,000), because that number changed the definition of a meter by only a fraction of a fraction of a percent—but made everything all nice and integer-y.

A consequence of using this definition is that any attempt to measure the speed of light is cyclicalyou must use a “meter” to measure it at some point—which relies on the speed of light.

Therefore what you actually do now, when you “measure” the speed of light (in a vacuum), is actually “measure how accurate your measuring instruments are."

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

AFP, Getty Images
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”


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