What is the speed of light? Here’s the history, discovery of the cosmic speed limit

The speed of light is important because it’s about way more than, well, the speed of light.
By | Published: January 23, 2024

On one hand, the speed of light is just a number: 299,792,458 meters per second. And on the other, it’s one of the most important constants that appears in nature and defines the relationship of causality itself.

As far as we can measure, it is a constant. It is the same speed for every observer in the entire universe. This constancy was first established in the late 1800’s with the experiments of Albert Michelson and Edward Morley at Case Western Reserve University. They attempted to measure changes in the speed of light as the Earth orbited around the Sun. They found no such variation, and no experiment ever since then has either.

Observations of the cosmic microwave background, the light released when the universe was 380,000 years old, show that the speed of light hasn’t measurably changed in over 13.8 billion years.

In fact, we now define the speed of light to be a constant, with a precise speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. While it remains a remote possibility in deeply theoretical physics that light may not be a constant, for all known purposes it is a constant, so it’s better to just define it and move on with life.

How was the speed of light first measured?

In 1676 the Danish astronomer Ole Christensen Romer made the first quantitative measurement of how fast light travels. He carefully observed the orbit of Io, the innermost moon of Jupiter. As the Earth circles the Sun in its own orbit, sometimes it approaches Jupiter and sometimes it recedes away from it. When the Earth is approaching Jupiter, the path that light has to travel from Io is shorter than when the Earth is receding away from Jupiter. By carefully measuring the changes to Io’s orbital period, Romer calculated a speed of light of around 220,000 kilometers per second.

Observations continued to improve until by the 19th century astronomers and physicists had developed the sophistication to get very close to the modern value. In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell made a remarkable discovery. He was investigating the properties of electricity and magnetism, which for decades had remained mysterious in unconnected laboratory experiments around the world. Maxwell found that electricity and magnetism were really two sides of the same coin, both manifestations of a single electromagnetic force.

James Clerk Maxwell contributed greatly to the discover of the speed of light.
James Clerk Maxwell. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Maxwell explored the consequences of his new theory, he found that changing magnetic fields can lead to changing electric fields, which then lead to a new round of changing magnetic fields. The fields leapfrog over each other and can even travel through empty space. When Maxwell went to calculate the speed of these electromagnetic waves, he was surprised to see the speed of light pop out – the first theoretical calculation of this important number.

What is the most precise measurement of the speed of light?

Because it is defined to be a constant, there’s no need to measure it further. The number we’ve defined is it, with no uncertainty, no error bars. It’s done. But the speed of light is just that – a speed. The number we choose to represent it depends on the units we use: kilometers versus miles, seconds versus hours, and so on. In fact, physicists commonly just set the speed of light to be 1 to make their calculations easier. So instead of trying to measure the speed light travels, physicists turn to more precisely measuring other units, like the length of the meter or the duration of the second. In other words, the defined value of the speed of light is used to establish the length of other units like the meter.

How does light slow down?

Yes, the speed of light is always a constant. But it slows down whenever it travels through a medium like air or water. How does this work? There are a few different ways to present an answer to this question, depending on whether you prefer a particle-like picture or a wave-like picture.

In a particle-like picture, light is made of tiny little bullets called photons. All those photons always travel at the speed of light, but as light passes through a medium those photons get all tangled up, bouncing around among all the molecules of the medium. This slows down the overall propagation of light, because it takes more time for the group of photons to make it through.

In a wave-like picture, light is made of electromagnetic waves. When these waves pass through a medium, they get all the charged particles in motion, which in turn generate new electromagnetic waves of their own. These interfere with the original light, forcing it to slow down as it passes through.

Either way, light always travels at the same speed, but matter can interfere with its travel, making it slow down.

Why is the speed of light important?

The speed of light is important because it’s about way more than, well, the speed of light. In the early 1900’s Einstein realized just how special this speed is. The old physics, dominated by the work of Isaac Newton, said that the universe had a fixed reference frame from which we could measure all motion. This is why Michelson and Morley went looking for changes in the speed, because it should change depending on our point of view. But their experiments showed that the speed was always constant, so what gives?

Einstein decided to take this experiment at face value. He assumed that the speed of light is a true, fundamental constant. No matter where you are, no matter how fast you’re moving, you’ll always see the same speed.

This is wild to think about. If you’re traveling at 99% the speed of light and turn on a flashlight, the beam will race ahead of you at…exactly the speed of light, no more, no less. If you’re coming from the opposite direction, you’ll still also measure the exact same speed.

This constancy forms the basis of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which tells us that while all motion is relative – different observers won’t always agree on the length of measurements or the duration of events – some things are truly universal, like the speed of light.

Can you go faster than light speed?

Nope. Nothing can. Any particle with zero mass must travel at light speed. But anything with mass (which is most of the universe) cannot. The problem is relativity. The faster you go, the more energy you have. But we know from Einstein’s relativity that energy and mass are the same thing. So the more energy you have, the more mass you have, which makes it harder for you to go even faster. You can get as close as you want to the speed of light, but to actually crack that barrier takes an infinite amount of energy. So don’t even try.

How is the speed at which light travels related to causality?

If you think you can find a cheat to get around the limitations of light speed, then I need to tell you about its role in special relativity. You see, it’s not just about light. It just so happens that light travels at this special speed, and it was the first thing we discovered to travel at this speed. So it could have had another name. Indeed, a better name for this speed might be “the speed of time.”

Related: Is time travel possible? An astrophysicist explains

We live in a universe of causes and effects. All effects are preceded by a cause, and all causes lead to effects. The speed of light limits how quickly causes can lead to effects. Because it’s a maximum speed limit for any motion or interaction, in a given amount of time there’s a limit to what I can influence. If I want to tap you on the shoulder and you’re right next to me, I can do it right away. But if you’re on the other side of the planet, I have to travel there first. The motion of me traveling to you is limited by the speed of light, so that sets how quickly I can tap you on the shoulder – the speed light travels dictates how quickly a single cause can create an effect.

The ability to go faster than light would allow effects to happen before their causes. In essence, time travel into the past would be possible with faster-than-light travel. Since we view time as the unbroken chain of causes and effects going from the past to the future, breaking the speed of light would break causality, which would seriously undermine our sense of the forward motion of time.

Why does light travel at this speed?

No clue. It appears to us as a fundamental constant of nature. We have no theory of physics that explains its existence or why it has the value that it does. We hope that a future understanding of nature will provide this explanation, but right now all investigations are purely theoretical. For now, we just have to take it as a given.