Why is the Speed of Light So Slow?
by Jonathan J. Dickau ©'97 - all rights reserved
An Exploration in Thought
Light is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, but do we really understand why it behaves as it does? What we see are photons of light, and in the physical universe this is the form light takes. Even light must take on form to exist in a material world, but this form is more subtle than normal matter, having no rest-mass whatsoever. The form which a light quantum takes is called a photon, which is the smallest unit of energy of a particular frequency (color or pitch) which can be manifested. Photons are carriers of vibrancy, or vibration, throughout our universe. The nature of a photon is rather curious. The more energy they contain, the smaller they are. This relates to their wavelike nature. Radio waves, for example, are comprised of photons which can be meters, or kilometers, long. Microwaves are in the centimeter range. Photons of light are tiny, by comparison, but X-Rays are smaller still.
All of these manifestations move at the same speed, in a vacuum. The Earth's atmosphere allows some of the above to travel more quickly than others, but I don't think that this will lead us to the answer of our question. The reasons why light's speed is limited may not be found in our universe at all. In the world before our universe began, however, Science has asserted that light, as vibration or energy, would have very different properties. This may appear to have little to do with the world of our experience, but there is reason to believe it will help us to answer the question. It's my belief that the answer comes from studying the geometry of the early universe! To know what forms it was possible to take, and the reasons why it took certain forms, will allow us to clearly see why light manifests as it does, and why its speed is limited.
String theory is the study of a structure called a string, which has infinitesmal thickness, but appears infinitely long, without any resistance to the flow of Energy. All action of strings takes place in a curious world where Time and Space, as we know them, do not exist, there is no Matter, nor the possibility for it to exist, and the nature of energy is quite different from its manifestation within time/space. To cut a string creates a non-reversible change in its character; strings with open ends cannot exist, or persist, as such. The proto-energy flowing in a broken string must link up with itself to form a complete circuit, a closed loop of energy. The string gives up its continuous, extended, length and forms independent entities of continuous, but closed nature. High energies are thus encapsulated in elements of form which are small in proportion to the energies contained (photons), or of finite size (sub-atomic particles).
Since the quantity c2 (where c is the speed of light) in Einstein's equation, E = mc2, approaches infinity when mass goes to zero (as c2 = E/m), this implies that speed of light would be infinite if there were no matter in the universe. The question this brings to mind is; what would the geometry of space be in a universe devoid of extended form? Note that the solution above states that c2, not c (the speed of light) is what goes to infinity with zero mass. What does this mean in real terms? If light would approach the square root of infinity in a three-dimensional universe, then it would be unbounded in two-dimensional space. This makes sense, if the original shape of the universe is assumed to be a circle, since the size of that circle would be undefined.
Think about it. If you have a circle in the middle of nowhere, how big is it? The size of it is an undefined quantity, due to the fact that there is nothing to compare it to. To mathematics, undefined is synonymous with infinite. and this makes sense in an abstract, geometric way. From the center of a circle in an unoccupied space, the edge is infinitely far away! For something to be quantifiable (i.e. - having units to be measured by), one must be able to make comparisons with other objects , or units, and if there were none in existence, the extent of that circle would be impossible to determine, except in relation to itself. If our universe was spawned from a loop of string, and this loop closed upon itself to form a shape that was circular, this would require, or define, the existence of an infinite, flat (2-d) space. In this sense, the string could keep its infinite extent, while being distinct.
The first form of the universe may have actually been a circle, but as it expanded to consume, or encompass, an infinite area of flat space, the proto-energy contained therein began to cool into density, or mass. The infinitely fine string developed thickness, thus becoming a 3-d object. By virtue of the relative difference in the frames of reference, the infinite area of space becomes a finite, but expanding volume of mass-energy, moving toward infinity. As the finite (although very large) amount of proto-energy attempts to encompass an infinite area of space, the energy density, or temperature, of the energy decreases until it reaches a point of manifestation, or droplification. The total of the mass component, in the universe's mass-energy equation, then causes the fabric of space to curve to an equivalent degree. Note that it is possible to map an infinite flat space to a curved space (the hypersphere) which is shaped like a donut, or torus. This is actually what a circle of string turns out to be, topologically speaking, if you give the string thickness.
What probably caused our universe to come into existence, is that a loop in a string crossed back on itself, and therefore cut itself off. The result would be a tiny vortex with an incredible (but finite) amount of energy split off from the main filament which, hopefully, rejoins its connectivity without the loop. This loop, like its parent filament, cannot exist as an open ended string; it must link up with its own other end, and will curl up, or spiral, attempting to catch itself. The flow of proto-energy must be continuous, or uninterrupted, in order to exist, and therefore strings must either be infinitely long, or enter into forms which allow the ends of the stringlets to join to each other. This is exactly what matter is believed to be! That is, the sub-atomic particles which comprise the atoms of our substance are a collection of energy loops, so arranged as to fit together neatly.
This explanation still leaves many questions unanswered, solutions of which are necessary to fully explain why light is as slow as it is in our part of the universe. Understand that I am not really complaining that it's too slow, but rather I'm pointing out that it is far from infinitely fast. Light takes years to shine from the nearest star, and light from distant galaxies has been traveling to us for millions of years, before we see it. The distances are vast, so I guess the question is why does light take time to travel through space, in the first place. I believe this has to do with the fact that light has to take on form to exist in our world, and that the universe itself has taken on form relative to the entities it contains. Another question would have to be; where did the energy come from that created the universe in the first place? If strings of energy are real, what made them manifest?
The existence of a region totally devoid of energy, and substance, might serve as a magnet for energies from an energy-rich dimension, but what, or where is that realm? We may not know, but we can still detect its effects. In the course of trying to create a perfect vacuum, scientists have discovered that, even when both external energies, and particles of matter, are carefully excluded from a vacuum chamber, resonances arise spontaneously. Electromagnetic energies, pairs of sub-atomic particles (some of which will cancel each other), and other curious phenomenon are born in the vacuum chamber itself, after outside influences are filtered out. The very existence of a container seems to give rise to contents, and its shape and dimensions help to determine the nature of these contents to a large degree.
We can assume that this same sort of thing applies for the universe we now inhabit. The opening of a defined space, by the expanding universe, invited the presence of form. The archetypal shapes assumed by the proto-energy during its formation into the universe also helped determine the nature of physical laws here and now. In a sense, the perception of shape must be viewed as relative to the viewpoint of the observer. One must postulate archetypal viewpoints, relative to the prime objects, in order to get a sense of their nature. In a sense, such viewpoints are privileged, since they are imaginary, or theoretical.
To see the universe as a circle (a topologically likely form), for example, one would have to be at a point outside the universe, along the axis of the circle, and looking down at it. From the center of the circle, what is visible is a vast, flat plane, and the circle of light, or energy receding to cover an infinite area. The view of, or rather from, the rim itself is almost one-dimensional, appearing much like an infinite straight line, except slightly curved in one direction. To see the circle from a point out a fixed distance away, on the axis, makes certain things possible to understand, but it is no more real than the other viewpoints. In the early universe of this scenario, in fact, no object could be there to view the unfolding events, because the circle of light was all there was.
The substance, or surface of the circle itself, is a current, or circuit of proto-energy, the loop of string from which our universe was formed. With the apparent cooling and thickening of the proto-energy, reluctance to the flow emerged, and the element of apparent spin caused the circle to become something else. Once this occurred, the turn toward solid, 3-dimensional form was inescapable, and absolute. What makes the process unfolding a universe inexorable is the dimensional shift, since it introduces relativity both of mass-energy, and of viewpoint. As long as a perfectly circular form can be maintained, space is unbroken, uniform, infinite in area, and flat. When the ideal circle becomes a real object, it is no longer 2-dimensional, and a new set of laws apply to its evolution.
The answer to question posed in the title relates strongly to the above fact. What I have asserted is that the speed of light would be infinite in a flat space with no mass-bearing objects, and I've postulated that the early universe could have assumed the shape of a circle (which would define a flat space), but that this circle would tend to evolve into something else. Exactly what it would evolve into is somewhat of an open question, both for me now, and probably for the universe then. In truth, I think that the answer to this question relates to what is possible. Exactly what is possible to create when you start with such a simple form?
Defining the figures it is possible to derive when one has only a solitary circle as both a starting point and unit of measure, is considered a fundamental exercise of sacred geometry. Mathematics has also evolved a study called knot-theory, which studies the shapes loops of string can be tied into, and the dimensional spaces they inhabit. Physicists have proposed a wide range of different things that can evolve from loops of string. One thing is apparent, however, a simple circle may seem limited, but it implies a world of form, and expanded into three dimensions, it can generate a universe of form. There seems to be some critical size, or dimension, where this takes place, and once this dimensional threshold is crossed, other forces take over, which evolve the universe with which we are familiar.
It is the fact of living in a 3-d world which makes it necessary for the speed of light to have a limit at all, even theoretically. Having a world with mass-bearing objects in it also seems to go hand in hand with curved space, and this apparently slows light down. It is my belief that light was even lighter, in the early universe, in terms of the quality of weight or density, and that the absence of substantial form in the early universe would have allowed it to speed to infinity. In our corner of the universe, the speed of light may be relatively constant, but perhaps it is not the same everywhere. Maybe the exact curvature of space in our region is defined by the number of heavy objects surrounding us, and their proximity.
Why light would be slowed down by curved space is not totally obvious, but there is a theoretical basis. The shape of the universe forces light to take the long way around, when traveling between objects. The continued expansion of the universe means that the distance traveled gets longer, all the time. There may be a fundamental trade-off at work here. Perhaps light can travel infinitely fast through a world which is totally flat, with no substantial objects around, but such a place is not very interesting. There is not a lot to see, and no real place to go. Traveling really fast is not worth very much, under those conditions. It may be more desirable to have a lot to see, and to take a little longer to get there. Who cares if it would take me years to get to another star, even traveling at the speed of light. The universe is full of fascinating places to visit, and maybe it's worth the wait.
© '97 Jonathan J. Dickau - all rights reserved
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Mysteries of Science
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March 1, 1997
last updated on
January 18, 1999 - jd