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I usually get my news by reading a weekly news magazine or looking online at various news web sites. Rarely do I read the newspaper and after what I am about to reveal, I may never be able to read it again. Well, not too long ago I stumbled across an article about the speed of light. I happened to be taking an astronomy course at this time, so I thought the article might be interesting. It was, in fact, scary.
You may be asking, what did this article say about light that made it so scary? Were there aliens that shoot light out of their fingers? Are there bees that sting with some sort of laser? Gorillas that shoot light out of their eyes? Don’t be crazy. The fact is that some scientists have been able to find a way to actually slow light down.
No, I am not crazy; at least I was not at three o’clock this morning when I last checked. This article in the Pioneer Press, a local Saint Paul, Minnesota, newspaper, had a front-page article titled: “Speed of light hits the brakes in promising new experiment,” by Malcolm W. Browne, New York Times.
Before I go further, let me explain how light works in my own, serious, scientific way. Say you have a source of light, in my example I will use water to represent light, and a fire hose to represent the source of that light. Suppose also you have an object for the light, or water in this case, to hit. We will use protesters, For demonstration purposes (no pun intended) the pressure of the fire hose shoots water at 100 feet per second. Let’s say that the protesters are 800 feet away, thus it will take eight seconds for the protesters to be hit with water. (The sun is eight light minutes away from Earth which means it takes eight minutes for light to hit the Earth.) The moment I turn on the water, the protesters are still dry, just as if I turned on a light. Because light travels so fast (186,171 miles per second) we do not realize the time it takes to go from the source to the object. Since our pressurized hose (let’s make it a water cannon instead) emits water (let’s make it hot oil instead) at 100 feet per second, we can see the liquid travel from the cannon to the protesters, allowing us to see the helpless, terrified expressions on their faces seconds before the hot oil bums them.
Amidst the screaming and agony we have the glory of science! Until recently there was no way to actually see the light travel along its path. How slow can it go? Well, let’s slow down from 186,171 miles per second to 38 miles per hour. This means that already, when you travel in your car at 78 mph (which I never do) you are going twice the speed of lab light and soon you will be able to walk faster than the speed of lab light. They said that they will hopefully soon be able to slow it down to an earth-moving speed of 120 feet per hour, which is the speed of a glacier. That is one foot per half-minute.
Basically these experiments are allowing us to flip a switch, go to the bathroom, wash our hands thoroughly, grab a sandwich, read War and Peace, and write a novel while waiting to see the light. Okay, I’m sorry here, but in this age where technology travels at the speed of light (pardon the expression) I would be upset if my brand new 400 MHZ computer allowed me to turn it on, go for a cup of coffee, knit sweaters for the entire Chicago Cubs, and return in time to see the system start. Since many of you read this via the Internet, I am sure you are used to slow modem speeds in which you celebrate two birthdays while downloading software, MP3 files, and movie trailers for Star Wars Episode I.
Of course this technology will not be used for break lights in cars or warning lights in nuclear power plants, but just what are the practical purposes of slowing down a beam of light? The article gave reasons but they did not make sense to me. My only guess is that since they shoot a laser through a cluster of atoms, which are at a chilling temperature of fifty billionths of a degree above absolute zero (0 degrees Kelvin (Equivalent to -273.15 degrees Celsius (-459.67 degrees Fahrenheit))), their electric bill for the refrigerator has to be high. It would only be logical then to slow the light down, ration it, and get the most out of it to save money.
We all really know where this technology came from. The alien spacecraft at Area-51. It just took so long to figure it out because it took too long to see the light.