Measuring the Speed of Light at Home
Consider: You’re a deer on a dark road.A pair of headlights is suddenly approaching you.Fast. You stare at it intently, wondering – how fast is the light moving? Now, if you’re that deer, chances are this wouldn’t be your first concern.Or maybe it would.Maybe that’s why they take so long to move away… long calculations about the speed of light flood their minds..[youtube_video id=”iPZ_cRv9P8Y”]
Note: If you have been to this post before, you might’ve missed quite a big error that was spread around through the text. Accidentally, I wrote 300*10^8m/s instead of 3.0*10^8m/s which is quite a large difference (and is absolutely wrong, too!). I apologize for the mistake, and hope that if you came back, at least I can correct it so that readers will have the correct number. The speed of light is 3.0 * 10^8 m/s – or 300,000,000 m/s. Thanks to Gonelli for the sharp attention 🙂
Of course, any educated deer knows that light moves at approximately 3.0*10^8 meters per second, which is very fast. It is wise, therefore, to move away very fast. But, as luck goes, by the time that realization passes the deer’s mind… well, you know. Poor deer.
But, that’s life. It’s not the only disturbing thing that may happen with speedy objects rushing through the air. It once struck me that I had no idea how baseball announcers knew the exact speed of a flying fastball.How about the speed of a baseball that’s just been hit out of the park?How fast is it traveling when it hits that car window in the parking lot?It’s moving so fast you couldn’t possibly measure its speed without fancy instruments.So, if its so hard to measure a baseball’s speed, how in the world can we measure the speed of light?
How can scientists be so sure of its speed with such certainty?And why should we believe them?
So.. no more! You don’t have to take their word for it. From now on, you can measure it for yourself with this – pretty nifty – home experiment.
Materials Used in this Experiment:
- Long chocolate bar – $2.00, $3.50 in NYC
- Microwave Oven: $100
- Plate: Clean, preferably. (Microwave safe if you like your microwave)
- Calculator: Not a must (but see the section titled Time for experiment)
- Ruler: $0.11 if you buy by the thousands.
- Personal, intimate knowledge of the speed of light: Priceless
Time for experiment:
About 10 minutes (with a calculator.15 without one. Could be a lot more if you forgot your fifth grade math).
There will be some inaccuracy in your result (my own calculations had a percent error of 6.3%). The size of this error is important, because it can help us understand what external factors played a role in our experiment.If you stop to consider your results, why you got them, and what they mean, it’ll help you understand how light works.
Since this experiment is done at home (which is not conducive to precise measurements, unless you live in a physics lab, in which case I am willing to relocate for a domestic partnership) there are several external conditions that could distort the measurements and lead to errors.This is by no means a complete list, but here are some external factors that I thought of:
- Uncertainty about the exact position of the plate inside the microwave oven. I had no way of knowing how high, or low, to put the chocolate inside the microwave so the waves would hit said chocolate at the x-axis and produce a relatively useful waveform on the chocolate. However, the microwave is relatively small, and I tried to align the plate with the wave generator (or what looked like one).
- There is air in the microwave oven. This type of experiments is best done in a vacuum, to eliminate any interference from “external” sources like resistance, humidity, etc. The electromagnetic (light) waves themselves might not be affected, but the chocolate certainly is.
- My measurement was relatively generous, on the broad side. If the chocolate had melted at two distinct points, I could have taken a more accurate reading. On top of that, my measuring devices â€“ a ruler and two imperfect eyes â€“ were of limited accuracy.Real labs with real scientists have very accurate measuring devices which decrease the percent error.
To try and eliminate such mistakes from affecting real experiments, real scientists never stop after only one experiment. The tests are repeated over and over again, and sometimes even over again, again, and all results(failures and successesses(whatever)) are recorded and analyzed. My experiment was only a demonstration, but if I’d have done it a few more times, and taken an average of the distance between entry/exit points of the wave, my accuracy level would probably rise.
Despite all this, I have to say: measuring the speed of light in non-lab conditions, using a bunch of Hershey’s Kisses and a plastic ruler, and getting only a 6.3% percent error, well, that ain’t too shabby.
There are many applications to knowing the speed of light, and mentioning all of them would be a crazy, crazy task even for me. However, for the sake of consistency, here are a few interesting scientific applications that use the speed of light:
- GPS Systems can pinpoint signal location on earth with calculations based on the speed of light.The GPS device (in your hand, for instance) receives a locator beam from multiple satellites at various locations in orbit. At any given time, GPS satellites are located over different parts of the Earth, and they all send out a signal synchronized to each other according to an atomic clock.In other words, they all broadcast at exactly the same time.But because the satellites are at different distances from you, your GPS unit will receive these synchronous signals at different times.Why?Because the signals, despite being broadcast at the same moment and traveling at the same speed (of light!) arrive at your location in a staggered manner â€“ sooner from closer satellites, later for farther ones.Calculating the relative delays of the signals lets your GPS unit figure out where you are to an exceptional degree of accuracy.
- Communication in Space: The speed of light affects communication in general (since light itself, as we said, is an electromagnetic wave, just like radio waves but at a different frequency) but the most noticeable effect is on communication in space. When Houston ground control (as in, “Houston.. we have a problem!”) communicated with Apollo 8, the first Apollo mission to orbit the moon, they had to wait about 3 seconds until their messages reached the astronauts.
- Distances in Space: Because distances in space are so vast and the speed of light is constant in a vacuum and thus the same number always, distances to far solar systems, planets and other stellar objects are often referred to in “light years.” In colonel general, the units of “parsec” (“parallax second”) and kilometers are used, but to convey the sheer size of those distances, they are expressed in terms of the speed of light.
This method of measurement is defined as the distance a light beam travels in a certain amount of time. For example, expressing the distance to Alpha Centauri system as 4.3 light years (meaning light from there takes 4.3 years to reach the Earth) is much more comfortable than trying to say, write, type or remember it as a distance of 4.06802721 * 10^13 km.
Isn’t light brilliant?- I know, I didn’t laugh either.
Remember: True science is about experimentation and observation. If you use your brain to do some thinking, the world is at your feet!(Of course the world is at your feet anyway, but if you don’t think you won’t know what to do with it.)
(lots of thanks to Daniel, who helped me out with English, jokes, and a decent way of combining the two.)
Speed of light:
Original idea (You can also find more information of how to conduct this experiment yourselves):