Nov 212018

On this date in 1676, the Danish astronomer Ole Rømer published the first quantitative measurements of the speed of light. Until the early modern period, it was not known whether light travelled instantaneously or at a very fast finite speed. The first extant recorded examination of this subject was in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks, Muslim scholars, and classical European scientists long debated this until Rømer provided the first calculation of the speed of light. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity concluded that the speed of light is constant regardless of one’s frame of reference. That is, if you are traveling towards a light source or away from it or stationary in relation to it, the light from the source comes at you at exactly the same speed. That is an astounding fact that most people fail to grasp. Today is also a milestone for Einstein and the speed of light which I posted on three years ago

Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC) was the first person to propose a theory of light, as far as we know, and he claimed that light has a finite speed. He maintained that light was something in motion, and therefore must take some time to travel. Aristotle argued, to the contrary, that “light is due to the presence of something, but it is not a movement.” Euclid and Ptolemy advanced Empedocles’ emission theory of vision, arguing that light is emitted from the eye, thus enabling sight. Based on that theory, Heron of Alexandria argued that the speed of light must be infinite because distant objects such as stars appear immediately upon opening the eyes.

Early Islamic philosophers initially agreed with the Aristotelian view that light had no speed of travel. In 1021, Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) published the Book of Optics, in which he presented a series of arguments dismissing the emission theory of vision in favor of the now accepted intromission theory, in which light moves from an object into the eye. This led Alhazen to propose that light must have a finite speed, and that the speed of light is variable, decreasing in denser bodies. He argued that light is substantial matter, the propagation of which requires time, even if this is hidden from our senses. Also in the 11th century, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī agreed that light has a finite speed, and observed that the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon argued that the speed of light in air was not infinite, using philosophical arguments backed by the writing of Alhazen and Aristotle. In the 1270s, the friar/natural philosopher Witelo considered the possibility of light traveling at infinite speed in vacuum, but slowing down in denser bodies.

In the early 17th century, Johannes Kepler believed that the speed of light was infinite, since empty space presents no obstacle to it. René Descartes argued that if the speed of light were to be finite, the Sun, Earth, and Moon would be noticeably out of alignment during a lunar eclipse. Since such misalignment had not been observed, Descartes concluded the speed of light was infinite. Descartes speculated that if the speed of light were found to be finite, his whole system of philosophy might be demolished. In Descartes’ derivation of Snell’s law (concerning the angle that light refracts when passing through media of different densities), he assumed that even though the speed of light was instantaneous, the denser the medium, the faster was light’s speed. Pierre de Fermat derived Snell’s law using the opposing assumption, the denser the medium the slower light traveled. Fermat also argued in support of a finite speed of light – and, of course, if you know your physics, Fermat was right and Descartes was wrong.

In 1629, Isaac Beeckman proposed an experiment in which a person observes the flash of a cannon reflecting off a mirror about one mile (1.6 km) away. In 1638, Galileo Galilei proposed an experiment, with an apparent claim to having performed it some years earlier, to measure the speed of light by observing the delay between uncovering a lantern and its perception some distance away. He was unable to distinguish whether light travel was instantaneous or not, but concluded that if it were not, it must nevertheless be extraordinarily rapid. In 1667, the Accademia del Cimento of Florence reported that it had performed Galileo’s experiment, with the lanterns separated by about one mile, but no delay was observed. The actual delay in this experiment would have been about 11 microseconds.


The first quantitative estimate of the speed of light was made in 1676 by Rømer. From the observation that the periods of Jupiter’s innermost moon Io appeared to be shorter when the Earth was approaching Jupiter than when receding from it, he concluded that light travels at a finite speed, and estimated that it takes light 22 minutes to cross the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Christiaan Huygens combined this estimate with an estimate for the diameter of the Earth’s orbit to obtain an estimate of speed of light of 220000 km/s, 26% lower than the actual value.

In his 1704 book Opticks, Isaac Newton reported Rømer’s calculations of the finite speed of light and gave a value of “seven or eight minutes” for the time taken for light to travel from the Sun to the Earth (the modern value is 8 minutes 19 seconds). Newton queried whether Rømer’s eclipse shadows were colored; hearing that they were not, he concluded the different colors traveled at the same speed. In 1729, James Bradley discovered stellar aberration. From this effect he determined that light must travel 10,210 times faster than the Earth in its orbit (the modern figure is 10,066 times faster) or, equivalently, that it would take light 8 minutes 12 seconds to travel from the Sun to the Earth.

I’ll return to molecular gastronomy one more time for this physics post to be consistent, even though there’s an awful lot of spherical liquid things involved. It does get a tad tiresome after a while.