Assignment Discovery: Einstein's Light Speed Revelation
Assignment Discovery: Einstein's Light Speed Revelation

On Discovery Channel's "Assignment Discovery," learn how Albert Einstein discovered that time is relative, meaning that when objects travel at, or close to the speed of light, distances stretch and time slows down.

Discovery

One of the tenets of Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum. Light speed is considered the universal speed limit of everything, and this is widely accepted by the scientific community. But in science, if you make a hard-and-fast rule, someone will try to disprove it, or at least find a loophole. And the speed of light is no exception.

Light, in a vacuum, travels at approximately 299,792 kilometers per second (186,282 miles per second). In September 2011, physicists working on the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) created a frenzy in the scientific community when they announced that their experiments resulted in subatomic particles called neutrinos traveling from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory near L'Aquila, Italy and arriving around 60 nanoseconds earlier than a beam of light. Ideas as to either how these neutrinos could have actually broken the speed of light, or as to what errors could have caused the impossible results, abounded. Finally, equipment issues, including a loose cable, were discovered as likely culprits, and the results were declared erroneous. So no rewriting of Einstein's theories turned out to be necessary.

Other researchers are trying to bend the rules rather than break them. In fact, bending space-time is one theory of how superluminal – faster-than-light -- speeds in space travel might be reached. The idea is that space time could be contracted in front of a spaceship and expanded behind it, while the ship would remain stationary in a warp bubble that itself was moving faster than the speed of light. This concept was originally modeled by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994 as a theoretical possibility, but one that would require a universe-sized amount of negative energy to power the phenomenon. It was later refined to requiring a planet-sized amount and then again to needing an amount around the size of the Voyager 1 space probe. Unfortunately, the negative energy would have to come from exotic matter that is difficult to come by, and we're currently only at the level of miniature lab experiments on warp drives. The math behind these theories is based on the laws of relativity, so theoretically it wouldn't be breaking the rules. The technology, if it ever exists, could also be used for going slower than light, but much faster than we can go now, which might be more practical.

Space travel is just one of the possible applications of reaching or exceeding the speed of light. Some scientists are working on doing the same for the purposes of much faster data transfer. Read on to find out about current data speeds and the potential for faster-than-light information.