© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Catch the rainbow

Our family has a longstanding relationship with the speed of light. We take care never to exceed it, for one thing, no matter how tempting. But there’s more than that.

I had all sorts of light-related fascinations when I was a kid — that light had a speed at all, for starters, and that it was so unimaginably fast, yet also finite and measurable. I knew the moon was a light-second away, the sun eight light-minutes, and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, 4.2 light years. I knew the Milky Way, one galaxy of billions, is 100,000 light years side to side.

Light helped me finally grasp the real immensity of the universe and my own infinitesimalitude.

Light is SO much faster than (pfft) sound — almost a million times faster — which is why lightning is already kicking back with a light beer when thunder comes panting up behind.

This stuff gave me endless fodder for discussion on first dates. It also took care of second dates rather neatly.

When it came time to marry, I limited the pool to those with no more than two degrees of separation from the speed of light. Fortunately my college friend Becca attended the same high school as Nobel laureate Albert Michelson, he of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which laid the groundwork for special relativity by showing that light weirdly measures at the same speed even if you are moving rapidly toward or away from the source.

Becca and I were married in a San Francisco Lutheran church with You-Know-What streaming through the windows.

Our kids have picked up the thread. As we drove home from his football practice four years ago, Connor (then 12) asked why time slows down as you go faster. (The previous week we had discussed the very cool Hafele-Keating experiment in which cesium clocks flown around the world differed from identical clocks on the ground by a few nanoseconds. I think I spotted the exact moment during the practice that he was thinking about Hafele-Keating instead of Offensive-Lineman.) I said our velocity through space plus our velocity through time equals the speed of light, so the faster you go through space, the slower you necessarily go through time.

In less than five seconds, he said, “So light doesn’t experience time, then.”

Holy buckets. I’d never thought of it.

Last week, standing in the dark waiting for the school bus, I discovered that I’d never shared with Delaney (9) the insanely cool fact that many of the stars we see probably aren’t there anymore. Some may have blinked out before the dinosaurs went extinct, but the end of the column of photons, even at 186,000 miles a second, still hasn’t reached us. Tomorrow morning we might suddenly see a “new,” bright star in the sky, which is actually a nova that happened millions of years before. That’s what nova literally means — a new star. But it isn’t really being born — it’s dying.

She made all those astonished, comprehending sounds I’ve come to love, and we quickly re-combed her hair as the bus pulled up.

On the heels of last month’s announcement that the speed of light might have been exceeded by neutrinos at CERN, Becca took the opportunity to give her second graders a little insight into how science works. “All these years we thought light was the fastest thing possible,” she said. “Even Albert Einstein said that was true. Now maybe, just maybe, scientists have found that it’s possible for something to go even faster. First they have to test and test again to be sure, and if it is, they’ll say, ‘Wow, we were wrong. We have to change our minds.'”

It’s true that we’re capable of upending our Newtons and Einsteins when the evidence insists, but of course it never happens quite as gladly as we sometimes claim. Individual scientists are just as prone as the rest of us to kick and scream and bite to protect their favorite conclusions, until the collective enterprise of science itself busts them upside the head. The important message for these second graders, though, is that science contains the ability, the means, even the willingness to change its conclusions in light of new evidence, despite whatever preferences individual scientists might have. (The CERN scientists assumed they made an error in measurement, by the way, something that has happened before — and a team in the Netherlands think they’ve found the error.)

All this light conversation brought me back to experiments I conducted around age seven, just inside my front door in St. Louis, Missouri. The edge of the glass on our front storm door was beveled, which formed a little prism, which at a certain time of day threw a tiny, intense rainbow on the floor.

I decided I was going to catch that rainbow. In a shoebox.

In what may be a perfect illustration of the seven-year-old mind, I knew that I would have to move faster than light to do this, but had not received the memo specifically prohibiting such a thing.

I found a shoebox and held it above the rainbow. I slowed my breathing and concentrated…then CLOMP! brought the box down on the rainbow.

Too slow. The damn thing was on top of the box.

I’d do this for a good half hour at a time before giving up — but only for that day. I remember thinking maybe light was a little slower in the winter, which was why it was colder then. So I tried in January. Even then, it was always just a liiiittle faster than I was, and the rainbow appeared on top of the box.

I eventually gave up my dream of catching the rainbow. But these experiments at CERN have given me hope. I just need to find a box made of neutrinos, and I’m back in the game.

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This was written on Thursday, 27. October 2011 at 09:04 and was filed under My kids, Parenting, Science, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. They think they’ve found the error. The most likely culprit seems to be that they didn’t account for the speed that the GPS satellite was moving, and the relativistic effects that causes.

    The total speed gain the experiment found was 64 ns, and the calculations of this error show 32 ns at each end = the 64 ns they were looking for.

    It seems to fit, and Mr Einstein settles back down in his grave for more well-deserved rest.


    Your story is still cute, though. 🙂

    Comment: KirbyG – 27. October 2011 @ 9:38 am

  2. When I was young I had a similar fascination with light, and I still remember the moment when I realized that if I studied physics, I’d get to learn everything about light and understand it. So that’s what I did (just got my PhD two weeks ago). Recently I gave my 6 and 7 year old nieces a telescope for their birthdays, I hope they get inspired too 🙂

    Comment: aproustian – 27. October 2011 @ 9:49 am

  3. @KirbyG: Yes, my link to the Netherlands team leads there. A lovely little illustration of self-correction.

    @aproustian: Congratulations on the Ph.D.! May you get much more mileage from yours than I did from mine.

    Comment: Dale – 27. October 2011 @ 10:42 am

  4. w00t! STL native! Where’d you go to high school? You miss t-ravs from the Hill? You grill up some pork steaks during the summer? Someone get this man some gooey buttercake!

    I really like this post. Anyone that says that science takes the awe and wonder out of life is simply getting it wrong. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not symbolic language only, it is literal fact, the atoms that make up your body were made inside once-burning stars.

    It reminds me of a youtube video by PhilHellenes, Science Saved My Soul. In it, he talks about star-light, saying that these stars that are (were) so far away that I never thought I could touch them. Yet something from it, the photon that left its surface, crosses the huge void and touches ME.

    Comment: TomZ, a miasma of incandescent plasma – 27. October 2011 @ 12:48 pm

  5. 🙂

    Comment: jfinite – 27. October 2011 @ 12:58 pm

  6. OH! OH! Science Saved My Soul is one of the most incredible videos of its kind, ever, ever. Anyone who hasn’t seen it is hereby beseeched to find 15 continuous, quiet minutes to watch it.

    As for STL, I moved to LA when I was ten. But my mom is still in St. Louis, so I know “The Hill” — NOT what it was called when I lived there, of course — and t-ravs. Not to mention concretes from Ted Drews!

    Comment: Dale – 27. October 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  7. As a parent and a teacher, I can see how kids can turn out if they don’t have any curiousity and I fear deeply that I won’t be able to instil that in my own kids. I love explaining physics to my girls even though they are both under 2 and can’t get it yet.

    I started them both with bedtime stories about the birth of stars and the universe. I hope they catch my fire for learning.

    Kudos to you.

    Comment: Mr Aion – 27. October 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  8. Brilliant! Several statements in here made me laugh loudly (e.g. second dates… so THAT’s why they never returned my calls…). I just love this stuff, and now, thanks to you and Mr. Aion above, I have new story fodder.

    And Mr Aion, you’re doing it right!

    Comment: pruman – 27. October 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  9. man, i love how giddy you get when something really peaks your interest. really infections.

    Comment: dsenette – 28. October 2011 @ 8:18 am

  10. And those Opera scientists are hoping to catch their faster-than-light rainbow with a re-jiggered experiment:


    I read Shroedinger’s Kittens as a teen and it blew my world right open – light has fascinated me ever since!

    Comment: Megan – 28. October 2011 @ 10:55 am

  11. Results from a second experiment are in… Cosmic speed limit still being exceeded. Maybe.


    Comment: Theo – 19. November 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  12. Yes, my son just told me that last night, with real excitement. I haven’t seen him so engaged in current science before. I’d swear he has money on it. (Hmm…)

    Comment: Dale – 19. November 2011 @ 3:28 pm

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