You’ve probably heard the word “photon” before, as in “photon torpedoes” popularized in the original Star Trek. “Photons” are what physicists call “light” or electromagnetic radiation, when it displays it’s particle-like behavior.
Think of the light from the Sun. The Sun (~6000 K) and emits light over a large range of frequencies. In space, satellites measure x-ray emissions, on Earth our eyes are sensitive to optical radiation and a radio-telescope like SETI Institute’s ATA see’s the Sun as an extremely bright object — the Sun emits radio waves too. We don’t often think about radio waves or x-rays as being made of the same stuff as ordinary light, but that is all there is to it. And everything from x-rays to radio waves can be described as if it were made up of particle photons in the quantum theory of light.
Photons are very special particles. Elementary particles like electrons, protons, neutrons or composite quasi-particles like atoms, molecules, ball-bearings, planets, stars, etc. share one important feature; they have mass. Rest mass. That is, if you stop an electron and weigh it, you’ll discover it has a measurable mass.
Photons in vacuum, lets call them “pure” photons, have no rest mass. If you stop a photon and weigh it… wait, you can’t stop a photon. Pure photons always move at the speed of light (duh!). If you subtract kinetic energy from a pure photon in an attempt to slow it down, it does not slow down, it just oscillates more slowly.
This is all very interesting, but how often do we come across “pure” photons in our universe? NEVER! Why? Because nowhere in the universe is there a perfect vacuum. Matter is dispersed everywhere. In the outermost reaches of space even in the vast gaps between galaxies, there is a tiny density of Hydrogen gas, possibly less than 1 atom per cubic centimeter. Even this much material is enough to disturb the properties of “pure” photons.
When a photon interacts with matter, two things happen : 1) it picks up “rest mass” and 2) it slows down. This happens because regular matter is made up of charged particles like electrons and protons (one each in a Hydrogen atom). When the electromagnetic wave passes an atom, it causes the lighter electrons to “jiggle” around the heavier protons, jiggling with the same frequency as the incident light wave. Momentarily, some of the photon energy is bound up in electron motion, but after a short time the electron releases the energy once more at the same frequency but with a small time lag. Matter imposes a “drag” on the photons, slowing them down. The same is true if light is passing through the space between stars, Earth’s atmosphere, a glass lens, a copper wire, and so forth.
How can photons, or light as we know it, travel slower than the speed of light? This sounds like a paradox. The answer is that photons passing through matter are no longer (pure) photons. The photons pick up a little bit of the material properties and the material picks up a little bit of the photon properties. Physicists say that the photons and oscillating electrons form a “quasiparticle” that travels nearly at the speed of light and carries a tiny bit of rest mass.
Now for the fun part. First of all, we’ve already discovered that everyday light really does not travel at the speed of light.
It is not possible to transmit light waves of arbitrarily low frequency. Suppose you go to a spot halfway between the Earth and Alpha-Centauri. You set up a large antenna and connect a radio transmitter that generates frequencies of, say, 0.001 Hz. That is one oscillation every 15 minutes, but never mind, there’s nothing to stop you from trying. What happens? Well, no waves are emitted. How can this be?
Because of the small amount of gas, especially ionized gas, between stars in our galaxy, the quasiparticle photon rest mass is equal to that of a pure photon with frequency >0.001 Hz. In a sense, you can try to generate waves with lower frequencies, but the surrounding space will “reject” these photons and they eventually re-enter the transmitter, cancelling out your attempted radiation. Photons with such low frequencies do not propagate. If you turn up your transmitter to oscillate just fast enough to exceed the rest-mass threshold of photons, then you will observe those photons travel very slowly, much slower than the speed of light in vacuum.
We can even imagine, within the boundaries of real physics, the concept of “slow glass,” invented by science fiction writer Bob Shaw in a story in Analog (1966) called “The light of other days.” In this story, a special kind of glass is invented such that optical photons take a long time, perhaps 10 years, to travel through a 1″ sheet of glass. Science fiction? Yes! But slow glass is possible.
Nothing, not even the light that provides us with sight every day, can travel as fast or faster than the speed of light in vacuum. But anything, including light, can be made to travel as slow as we like. This is the flip side of Einstein’s speed limit and allows for some weird possibilities. Perhaps we’ll explore more of these possibilities in a later blog.