Is the Speed of Light Slower Than Thought?

I came across an article in Phys Org in which a physicist suggested that the speed of light might be slower than thought. This is pretty amazing, considering that the speed of light is one of those things considered “settled science,” or a universal physical constant. No one questions the existence of gravity, or that the world is round, so it’s kind of strange to hear from a physicist who questions the accepted belief that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second (186,282 miles per second to be more precise, or 299,792,458 meters per second) in a vacuum.

Although there’s some criticism of the article submitted by physicist James Franson of the University of Maryland, others are taking his work seriously. If Franson is correct, the implications could be staggering; scientists would have to recalculate the distances of objects in space, and new theories would have to replace old ones.

But for now the article is undergoing peer review in the New Journal of Physics, so we’ll have to wait and see what develops. No doubt the process could reject his findings, and that would be the end of it. But, nonetheless, this does remain an interesting concept to explore.

The basis for Franson’s work comes from the observations of Supernova 1987A, which exploded in February of 1987. When the photons and neutrinos arrived on earth, they were 4.7 hours later than expected. It was theorized, therefore, that the photons had come from a different source. However Franson is speculating that there was a real delay caused by what’s called vacuum polarization, where photons split for a brief moment.

Whether or not he’s right, this isn’t the first time scientists have questioned the speed of light. Scientists from the University du Paris-Sud and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Light in Erlangen, Germany have explored the idea that the speed of light isn’t constant. Of course there are skeptics in each of these instances- as there should be- but it’s great that their work can be examined seriously, rather than be dismissed without scrutiny.

Einstein_1921_by_F_Schmutzer

Another thing I noted when reading several articles on Franson’s work, many of them highlighted that Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity could be wrong. But even if that’s true, Einstein understood that we can’t measure the one-way speed of light without resorting to circular reasoning , and he claimed that the speed of light is ultimately based on what we choose it to be (as long as it’s consistent):

“That light requires the same time to traverse the path A → M as for the path B → M is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own freewill in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity.” (Einstein 1961, p. 23).

I bring this up because, as a creationist, starlight is often cited as a reason why the earth cannot be young. It’s assumed that it would take starlight many billions of years to reach the earth from the furthest star, and, therefore, the earth must be billions of years old. But if we consider the evidence at hand without bias, and examine the unproven assumptions involved, there’s no reason why the earth and universe couldn’t be less than 10,000 years old, just as the Bible suggests. The Bible tells us that God created the sun, moon and stars on Day Four of creation, and this suggests that Adam and Eve were able to see stars when they were created several days later.

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13 thoughts on “Is the Speed of Light Slower Than Thought?

  1. I misread the headline at first. I was several paragraphs into this article before I realized that it wasn’t about my thoughts moving around in my head at faster-than-light speed. LOL!

  2. Interesting piece. There have been many instances of scientists claiming that light moves slower or faster than we originally thought. The problem I see when calculating the speed of light is the existence of a true vacuum. Even space isn’t really a vacuum. So when I hear someone say that light from a supernova didn’t reach us fast enough, the first thing I think is, “well, who knows what sort of cosmic dust or other interstellar junk lies between us and the supernova.” Space is far from empty, despite popular perception. Nonetheless, as we learn more and more about the universe I’m sure we’ll come across many phenomena that seems to defy physics or force us to re-evaluate or re-tool long held theories. It’s all part of the scientific process. I’ll be interested to see where peer evaluation takes this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Great points Ryan. It’s not that the laws of physics change, it’s just that our understanding may change based on new evidence, forcing us to re-evaluate certain theories. And it’s the willingness (or unwillingness) of the scientific community to examine these long-held theories when there’s a legitimate challenge to them.

  3. The Bible says that on the fourth day God placed lights in the heavens. It doesn’t say he created the bodies that were the source of those lights. It is possible that the sun, moon, and stars already existed but the atmosphere was cloudy enough so that they couldn’t be seen, although their light could reach the earth.

    • Hi Clyde, it sounds like you’re endorsing the Canopy Theory. There are several models of this, and I’m not sure which one you adhere to, but I’m guessing it’s the one where a water vapor canopy covered the earth until day four, or up until the Flood.

      While the Canopy Theory sounds plausible, I don’t adhere to it for a number of reasons. I’ll try my best to provide a sound answer. First, when I read Genesis 1:1-5, I don’t see anything that would lead me to conclude that God made (or created) the sun, moon or stars on day one of creation. And when I read Genesis 1:14-19, I do get the impression that God made the sun, moon and stars on day four because- in the context of day four- it says that “God made two great lights,” and, “He also made the stars”.

      According to the NIV translation, God says, “Let there be light,” and there was light. What stands out to me is that it sounds as if there’s light without any indication of a light source. God doesn’t tell us what the light source was.

      Next, God separated the light from darkness. If God had made the sun, moon and stars on day one, he could have said, “God made two great lights- the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars- the first day.” Not only is this description absent from day one, but it’s present on day four. Genesis 1:16 tells us that God made two great lights on day four, as well as the stars.

      I’m a little confused as to when you suggest that God created the sun, moon and stars. If you think that they already existed on day one, then I’m guessing that you think they were the source of light on day one. But you also said that it doesn’t say that God created the “bodies” that were the source of those lights. So that leads me to wonder when you think God did create the bodies for the source of light… was it day one or day four? If you think these bodies were created on day one, but there was an atmosphere so cloudy that they couldn’t be seen, then it’s hard to discern whether or not there was an evening and morning… there would be constant darkness, and that’s not the picture I get from reading the entire creation account.

      But if the sunlight could reach earth, then what’s the purpose of the text describing day four? If light could already be seen from earth underneath the canopy, then it’s kind of redundant to say that God made the lights on day four when he really made them on day one, or if they had existed long before that.

      Also, if God created the sun on day one, then what’s the point of needing to separate light from darkness? Wouldn’t this occur on its own based on the laws of physics? Do we assume the laws of physics were in effect at that point, in which case there’d automatically be darkness on the opposite side of the earth, negating the need for God to actively do this? Or were the laws of physics not in existence yet, allowing the sunlight to encompass the entire earth until God separated it? This would also lead me to wonder if you think God created the atmosphere on day one (rather than day two) to separate the light from darkness… But if that’s the case, then what did God do on day two? This seems too messy and complicated.

      Based on my understanding of Scripture, God created the atmosphere on day two: “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it and called the vault “sky.” Therefore there was no sky, clouds or atmosphere one day one because God didn’t make them until day two. The sun, moon and stars would have been visible on days one and two, and if we assume that they were blocked out by the atmosphere until day four, it still doesn’t make sense that God would say on day four, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night.” If he already made them on day one, then what was he doing on day four? Was he resting? Or did he actively clear the sky on day four so that the sun, stars and moon could be seen? If clearing the sky was his only activity on day four, then why is there no mention of this, unless it’s assumed?

      There’s really nothing in the creation account that would lead me to conclude that there was a canopy hiding the sun from the earth. I just don’t think it’s a natural conclusion from the text. I think inserting a canopy into the text leads to some conflicts that can’t be resolved. In my opinion, I think there are too many inconsistencies with this theory.

      I think part of the reason why the canopy theory is advocated is because we feel the need to have a light source on day one. It’s a natural conclusion to think that, if there’s a light, then there has to be a source. And since there’s light on day one, that light had to be the sun. But I don’t agree that the light source had to be the sun. Instead, it’s my opinion that the light source was God’s glory. And I think Revelation 21 and 22 provide a good rationale: “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (Revelation 21:23-24), and “There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

      Therefore, I think the glory of God is the source of light on day one. And if we believe this, then the rest of the days of creation fall consistently in line. God created the atmosphere and sky on day two, and he created the sun, moon and stars on day four, and he assigned to them the job of being the source of light from that time to the present.

      As a side note, computer models haven’t been able to reproduce the type of atmosphere needed to prevent the sun from being seen, yet cast light on the earth.

      Here’s a link to what I believe about Genesis one and two.

      https://sixdaysblog.com/2012/07/21/genesis-1/

      • Genesis 1 describes the creation of the earth. This is followed in Genesis 2 by a detailed description of one part of that creation, the creation of man. I think this same pattern is followed within chapter 1. The first verse simply says that God created everything. Beginning at verse 2 is a description of the earth, the part of the universe we live on. One reason I believe this is Psalm 115:16, “The heavens are the LORD’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man.” Since the earth is the only part of creation given to us it is the only part whose creation God has told us. How and when he created the rest of the universe is irrelevant.

        The creation account begins with the earth already existing but being in darkness. I think it was in darkness because something was keeping light from reaching the earth. When God said “Let there be light” he wasn’t creating light but allowing it to reach the earth. You said, “Computer models haven’t been able to reproduce the type of atmosphere needed to prevent the sun from being seen, yet cast light on the earth.” But we have all seen this condition on cloudy days. The first three days the earth was surrounded by clouds that allowed light to reach the earth but made it impossible to see the bodies that produced them.

        You can read a more detailed account of what I believe here:

        http://clydeherrin.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/creation-what-does-the-bible-actually-say-2/

      • Clyde, I understand. I think. I’ll try and read your blog entry later. Maybe after work.

        Jonathan, there is the canopy theory that puts a layer of water (or vapor) around the planet that is part of the source of the flood. That canopy theory is separate from the belief that that the substance of the planet was already in existence when Genesis 1 starts.

        There is an argument to be made for what Clyde believes. I won’t insert the billions of years needed to keep radiometric dating above water, but I’m willing to cautiously entertain Clyde’s viewpoint as I currently understand it.

    • Thanks Clyde, I can’t say that I completely follow, but I’m always willing to have a better understanding of the Bible and creation. Yes, Genesis 1 describes the creation of the earth, but I think there’s more to it than that. It sure sounds like it also describes the creation of everything that impacts man and the earth, including the sun, moon and stars. Now I still think there’s plenty of mystery involved (Job 38 through 41 make that clear), so it’s not possible for any of us to have a perfect cosmology, but I still see some inconsistencies with this model. Psalm 115:16 is a great verse, but I don’t see how that implies that the creation of the earth is relevant, while the rest of the universe is irrelevant. If the creation of the rest of the universe is irrelevant, then why mention that God made the sun, moon and stars on day four, and why provide as much detail as there is? Why describe anything beyond the earth (including the sky and water)? I actually think it’s significant that God mentions these things; for instance, God not only tells us that he created the sun, moon and stars on day four, but he assigns jobs for them. Their job is to “separate day from the night,” and to “serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years,” and to “be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” This sounds significant to me.

      Now I agree that God wasn’t very specific about creating the sun, moon and stars compared to the description of earth, but I think that’s because he created the earth to be man’s home; we are the masterpiece of his creation. Therefore, I do think it’s largely irrelevant that we weren’t given much detail about the creation of these heavenly bodies, but we know enough about it from God’s revelation on day four.

      I guess I’m still a bit confused about the existence of the sun and light in this model. You’re saying that the only reason there was darkness was because something was keeping the light from reaching the earth. But earlier you said that the light could still reach the earth. So was it dark, or was there light? If there was already light, then there was no need for God to command, “Let there be light,” because it was already reaching the earth. We’ve seen cloudy days, but I’ve never seen it so cloudy that we’re in constant darkness. But if the earth was in complete darkness, then I could understand God’s command for light. However, if it there was an atmosphere blocking the sun, then I’m confused about why God revealed to us that he made the atmosphere (or sky, firmament, vault) on day two. And if God’s command for light allowed the sun to be seen from the earth on day one, then why mention that he made the sun, moon and stars on day four?

      Anyway, I should have a chance to read your link tomorrow, and maybe that will give me a better understanding. I’m not opposed to this model if it can provide consistency, but I’m having trouble grasping it at the moment.

      • You said, ” If the creation of the rest of the universe is irrelevant, then why mention that God made the sun, moon and stars on day four, and why provide as much detail as there is?” The sun, moon, and stars are often mentioned in the Bible and are important because of what they reveal about God and because of the impact they have on our lives. I merely meant that we don’t need to know the details of how they were created.

    • I agree that we don’t need to know the details of how the sun, moon and stars were created, but God has revealed enough details that I think we can have a decent understanding of when they were created and what their purpose and job is.

  4. LOL! Clyde, you are using the same WordPress theme as Jonathan. That was very disorienting as I followed your link just now and landed on a page that looked like the very page I had just left. Too funny. All good though.

    • Jonathan, thanks for your input. Yeah, there are different models, and I try to follow them the best I can without dismissing them too quickly. I’ll have to see if I can figure this one out a little better.

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