Q: If light slows down in different materials, then how can it be a universal speed?

Physicist: This bothers a lot of people.  When you’re learning physics, there are several things that you learn in the first couple years.  Among them are:

1) The speed of light is an absolute.

2) Light slows down when it passes through a medium (like water, glass, air, …).

The first statement is the backbone of all of modern physics (relativity), and the second helps explain things like diffraction and rainbows.  But clearly these statements contradict each other.

Here’s the idea: a medium, whatever it is, is made up of molecules.  When a photon (light particle) hits a molecule it is sometimes absorbed.  Its energy is turned into raised electron-energy-levels, or vibrations and flexing, or movement.  In short order (very short order) the photon is spit out of the other side, none the worse for wear.

When a photon hits a molecule it's sometimes absorbed and re-emitted. That process takes a little bit of time that we interpret as a "slowing".

In between molecules light still travels at light speed.  It’s just that, with all those molecules around, it’s always darting ahead, getting absorbed, pausing for a moment, then being re-emitted.  On the scale we’re used too, this happens so much and so fast that you don’t notice the starting-and-stopping.  Instead you notice an average slowing of the light.

That is, if light always takes about 33% longer to travel through water than air (and it does) due to absorption and re-emission, you’d say “ah, light travels slower through water!”.  The fact that that isn’t quite the case is rarely important.

Answer gravy: This isn’t part of the answer, but it’s interesting: The interaction between light and the medium it moves through is generally “clean”, in the sense that even if the light is in a complicated quantum state before entering the medium, it retains it.  As a result, light continues to point in the same direction (which is good, in terms of seeing stuff), and even keeps its polarization.

What’s really fascinating, is that even more bizarre quantum states, like those involving being spread out over a large area, are also allowed to persist.  If this were not the case it would be impossible to do the double slit experiment (which requires the photon to be in many locations) without a specially prepared vacuum chamber!

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67 Responses to Q: If light slows down in different materials, then how can it be a universal speed?

  1. AJ says:

    If photons had even the slightest mass, no matter how small, couldn’t they ironically be the dark matter we don’t see? We see the light source and the light reflected by different surfaces but we don’t see the light travelling from the source. Space and the air around us must be filled with light. If photons have zero mass why would they be influenced by other materials or gravity?

  2. RJ says:

    That’s interesting: “couldn’t they ironically be the dark matter we don’t see”.
    I sort’a think of that in the same way too..

  3. Doc G says:

    According to general relativity, mass curves spacetime. The curvature affects anything that moves through spacetime, including massless things like light. The surprising observation that even though light has no mass it can still be affected by gravitational fields was seen as extremely convincing evidence that Einstein’s way of thinking about it was correct!

  4. Pablo Jeynes says:

    Interesting paradoxical analyses. Let me try a physicist viewpoint.
    The photon rest mass is known experimentally to be extremely small if not zero. But anyway photon energies are certainly finite, which by the energy-mass equivalence would indeed provide a source of gravitational field. This is well known and would surely ? be accounted for in cosmology if significant. A region of space with a bunch of photons will have an “effective” mass which acts as source of gravitational field (curving spacetime) like any other energy=mass density distribution.
    So light/ photons act as gravitational source and complementarily they also are affected by gravitational attraction. Note even classical infinitesimal small mass particle would fall with the same acceleration as any finite mass , Galileo principle.
    The curved spacetime reality means photons are deflected but they dont accelerate their speed when falling into a gravitational well . Instead of speeding up there can be increase in light/ photon energy via their frequency …. equivalently in classical em wave energy or as quantum photon energy, E=hf, the result is the same.
    If we start changing observer then time dilation in a gravity well is important so everything is consistent.
    I hope this helps clear up the paradoxes. It works for me but I should say I am not an expert in General Relativity, just a “normal” physicist trying to help out. Please anyone feel free to disagree or correct as necessary.

  5. owais issac says:

    ya I think light is really analogy of dark matter if material bodies didn’t fall in its way because we cannot see the light (energy) in vacuum. it seems nothing is there even though the light is passing through in the same way there would be some way to visualize the mysterious dark matter but we haven’t discovered that yet. just imagine we had source what we see glowing but if there isn’t anything that this emmited energy would strike would appear as what we currently called dark energy or dark matter

  6. henry flower says:

    I came here to understand why light slowed in a medium, and I got a great answer. But the comments are just as interesting. If photons have mass, and the universe has been emitting them in great abundance for more than 13 billion years, how much photon mass is out there? I’m sure someone has worked out the numbers.

  7. kaya says:

    in which solution would best explain when light slows down

  8. NetBlueSky says:

    I thought that Special Relativity, which sets the speed of light as constant (C), was in contradiction with the General Relativity which allows the speed of light to vary …including greater than 186k mps.

    Seems to me that such a contradiction is not acceptable scientifically …

  9. NetBlueSky says:

    The Special Relativity theory was Einstein’s response to the Michelson-Morely experiment that showed the speed of Earth through space was zero.

    The part of the Theory which I do not accept as science is the assumption that the length of the device aligned with the presumed travel of the Earth, actually got shorter because of the (assumed) 66,000 mph speed of the Earth (around the sun). It was this (supposed and fantastical) physical shortening of the instrument that caused the experiment to show the Earth speed at zero … instead of of the presumed 66,000 mph or some such number.

    So the world has accepted that the physical dimensions of a mechanical device will change depending on it’s speed. Yet where is the actual science that supports this theory ? What other observable phenomenon support this fantastical idea ?

  10. darren peachey says:

    NetBlueSky is almost right and correct to question the theory……ok, so light slows down when it travels through a medium? so what else does it travel through if not a medium? where have we observed light where there is nothing for it to travel through ? light ‘waves’ need something to travel on surely? there is always something there….and Sagnac, again using real experiments, not maths and theories, proves michelson / morley were right……..every aircraft in the world can display proof of this as they all use a laser gyroscopic compass….funny how none of us were taught that eh? odd how none of our education and curriculums covered Sagnac, although they all covered einstein….although what he said wasnt true….maths equasions can tell lies, experiments are how to test real physics.

  11. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    @darren peachey
    Ring gyroscopes, and gyroscopes in general, are only capable of detecting acceleration or change in orientation. The only way they have of keeping track of either velocity or position is to integrate the amount of acceleration they’ve experienced. Movement in a straight line at a constant speed is undetectable in all situations. Sagnac (who discovered the Sagnac effect which governs the behavior of ring gyros) actually did some aether experiments himself and came to the conclusion that special relativity holds.

  12. Ruth says:

    So then what happens to light when it enters our eyes? It slows down and then what? Does it turn into mass? Are we light beings after all?

  13. The Physicist The Physicist says:

    Our eyes are just another medium, so light slows down the same way it slows down in anything. The lens and the fluid inside of our eyes allow light to pass through (slightly slowed) but when light hits the back of our eyes it gets absorbed (just like it does when it hits a rock; nothing special). Sometimes when light hits a cone or rod cell, that cell triggers and sends a signal to the brain. That’s vision. No light beings necessary.

  14. John David Dunson says:

    our eyes are basically radio receivers… i.e, an array of tiny antennas. light is electromagnetic radiation, just like radio waves (but of a slightly higher freq). our brains decode the data received by our eyes and use it to create a colorful, three dimensional simulation inside our minds.

  15. Wes says:

    Note, I made the following simplistic tale of fiction up. It is not an accepted event by any scientists I know, but derived of pure imagination. But it might be right if Occam’s Razor means anything.

    Solids are made of mass such as the nucleus and electron shells. Most of each atom is open space as discovered by Rutherford ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geiger-Marsden_experiment ) who, when shooting helium nuclei through thin, thin gold foil, noted that most ‘bullets’ missed but just a few ‘hit’ something (the middle of several atoms) and were deflected. Considering that ‘spacy’ phenomena a bit more, it is a little odd that most photons don’t just shoot right through any thin material. Oh. Maybe they do.

    At any rate, each photon should be able to always travel at the speed of light*… if it doesn’t hit anything. After all… most of the atom, devoid of particles, must be a great vacuum. Alternately, if an actual collision is not possible because of the ghostly/wavy nature of the photon, a very few must be somehow otherwise mysteriously absorbed. If any photon did miss all the nuclei why doesn’t it travel at the speed of light through solids then?

    One might suppose that the photon does travel at light-speed as always, but doesn’t go in a straight path. But what would curve it. There is only one force that can even affect the photon. Gravity. But of course! Eureka! Due to the extraordinarily close proximity of massive, dense nuclei, the path is fraught with gravitational curved tunnels making it longer! And we can calculate them, because by the delay, we know how long they have to add up to.

    And there you have it… the original photon zig-zags it’s way between nuclei to a miraculous escape and usually coasts out as crooked as it had to be to fit in… just like a hero’s starship weaving through asteroids. Called refraction. The miracle only happens when the nuclei (or asteroids) are arranged just right.

    *By the way, light travels at the speed of gravity. I’m tired of light getting all the top billing credit all the time. 😉


  16. Richrrrr says:

    Photons travel at light speed. If they had even the slightest mass they would become infinitely massive. They are affected by gravitational fields because the warped spacetime is the most direct route. They trade energy for mass when they come to rrst

  17. John David Dunson says:

    he knows that. he was writing a fictional explanation for the fun of it.

    although, i don’t think you’re entirely correct saying that photons trade energy for mass when they “come to rest”. i’m not even sure what you’re talking about.
    first, energy IS mass… just a different form. a photon has a “rest mass”. which is kind of a way to explain how much mass its energy has. think of how solar sails work. energy does have mass. they’re two sides of the same two dimensional coin.
    and correct me if i’m wrong, but the only way i know of that a photon can “come to rest” (i.e., cease to exist) is to be absorbed by an electron, imparting a specific amount of energy to that electron. that’s not trading energy for mass; it’s making the absorbing material briefly more energetic. it’s trading energy for energy. slightly less energy, i would imagine.

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