light: The Speed of Light
An important question in the history of the study of light has been the determination of its speed and of the relationship of this speed to other physical phenomena. At one time it was thought that light travels with infinite speed—i.e., it is propagated instantaneously from its source to an observer. Olaus Rømer showed that it was finite, however, and in 1675 estimated its value from differences in the time of eclipse of certain of Jupiter's satellites when observed from different points in the earth's orbit. More accurate measurements were made during the 19th cent. by A. H. L. Fizeau (1849), using a toothed wheel to interrupt the light, and by J. B. L. Foucault (1850), using a rotating mirror. The most accurate measurements of this type were made by Michelson. Modern electronic methods have improved this accuracy, yielding a value of 2.99792458 × 108 m (c.186,000 mi) per sec for the speed of light in a vacuum, and less for its speed in other media. The theory of relativity predicts that the speed of light in a vacuum is the limiting velocity for material particles; no particle can be accelerated from rest to the speed of light, although it may approach it very closely. Particles moving at less than the speed of light in a vacuum but greater than that of light in some other medium will emit a faint blue light known as Cherenkov radiation when they pass through the other medium. This phenomenon has been used in various applications involving elementary particles.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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