Three-speed Transmission

“Have I got this straight, Sy? You’re saying that prisms throw rainbows because light goes slower through glass than in air and that bends the beam, but every frequency lightwave bends a different amount. Also you’re saying all the bending happens when speeds switch at the glass face, not inside the glass. Am I right so far?”

“Perfect, Vinnie, but you skipped an important detail.”

“Which one?”

“Snell’s ‘index of refraction‘, the ratio of wave speed in vacuum to wave speed in the medium. The higher the frequency, the higher the speed in the medium so the index decreases towards 1.0. The definition lets us calculate wave speed in the medium from that frequency’s refraction index. For most materials the index is usually greater than 1.0, meaning that the speed inside the material is usually slower than in space.”

“Still using those ‘most‘ and ‘usually‘ weasel‑words.”

“Guilty as charged, because we’ve finally gotten to the ‘multiple speeds of light‘ thing. Which means I need more precise wording. The wave speed we’ve been talking about so far applies to a specific part of the wave, say the peak or trough. Those are wave phases, so I’m going to call that speed the ‘phase speed‘, OK?”

“Fine with me.”

“Good, because the second speed is different. Among his many important contributions, Lord Rayleigh pointed out that you can’t have a pulse that’s one pure frequency. A single‑frequency wave never starts and never ends. Do you remember the time I combined waves to draw a camel?”

“You did, mostly, but there was funny stuff at his nose and butt.”

“Because I only included about a hundred component waves. It’d take many more to kill those boundary zig‑zags. Any finite wave has the same issue. Rayleigh said that an individual wave has a phase speed, but any ‘peculiarity,’ like a pulse rise or fall, could only be created by a group of waves. The peculiarity could travel at a different speed from the component waves, like a pair of scissors where the cutting point moves faster than either blade.”

“Sounds like carrier wave and sidebands on my ham radio. But if different frequencies have different speeds they’d get all out of sync with each other. How does a photon stay in one piece?”

“The vacuum is non-dispersive — the photon’s component waves all travel at the same speed and stay together. If a medium absorbs some frequency, that makes it dispersive and that changes things.”

“Ah, that’s why you hedged about transparency.”

“Exactly. Throw in a few absorbing atoms, like cobalt that absorbs red or gold that absorbs blue, and you get interesting effects from your sideband components interacting. Skipping some math, the bottom line is simple and cute. The group speed’s equation is just like the phase speed’s except there’s a positive or negative correction term in the denominator.”

“Sy, I don’t like equations, remember? I suppose f is frequency in your correction term but what’s slope?”

“That’s a measure of how rapidly the index changes as the frequency changes. For most frequencies and most media, the slope is very slightly negative because the index slowly descends towards 1.0 at high energies. The vg fraction’s denominator stays just less than nf so the group goes slightly faster than the phase. Near an absorption line, though, things get sloppy. Waves that are just a little off the absorber’s favorite frequency can still interact with it. That changes their speed and the ‘corrected’ refraction index.”

“Gimme a sec … guess I’m OK with the positive slopes but there’s that yellow part where the slope is negative. Wouldn’t that make the fraction’s bottom smaller and the group speed higher?”

“Certainly. In fact, under the right conditions the denominator can be less than 1.0. That pushes the group speed above c — faster than light in vacuum, even though the component waves all run slower than vacuum lightspeed. It’s only the between‑component out‑of‑syncness relationship that scissors along beyond c.”

“You said there’s a third speed?”

“Signals. In a dispersive medium those sideband waves get chaotic and can’t carry information. Wave theory and Einstein agree — chaos may be able to travel faster than light, but information can’t.”

~~ Rich Olcott

The Speeds of Light

“I don’t give up easy, Sy.”

“I know that, Vinnie.  Still musing about lightwaves and how they’re all an electron’s fault?”

“Yeah.  Hey, can your OVR app on Old Reliable grab a shot from this movie running on my smartphone?”

“We can try … got it.  Now what?”

“I wanna try mixing that with your magnetic field picture.”

“I’ll bring that up … Here, have at it.”

“Umm … Nice app, works very intuitive-like …  OK, see this?”Electrons and lightwave

“Ah.  It’s a bit busy, walk me through what’s in there.”

“OK. First we got the movie’s lightwave.  The ray’s running along that black arrow, see?  Some electron back behind the picture is going up and down to energize the ray and that makes the electric field that’s in red that makes other electrons go up and down, right?”

“That’s the red arrow, hmm?”

“Yeah, that electron got goosed ’cause it was standing in the way.  It follows the electric field’s direction.  Now help me out with the magnetic stuff.”

“Alright.  The blue lines represent the lightwave’s magnetic component.  A lightwave’s magnetic field lines are always perpendicular to its electric field.  Magnetism has no effect on uncharged particles or motionless charged particles.  If you’re a moving charged particle, say an electron, then the field deflects your trajectory.”

“This is what I’m still trying to wrap my head around.  You say that the field’s gonna push the particle perpendicular to the field and to the particle’s own vector.”

“That’s exactly what happens.  The green line, for instance, could represent an electron that crossed the magnetic field.  The field deflected the electron’s path upwards, crossways to the field and the electron’s path.  Then I suppose the electron encountered the reversed field from the lightwave’s following cycle and corrected course again.”

“And the grey line?”

“That’d be an electron crossing more-or-less along the field.  According to the Right Hand Rule it was deflected downward.”

“Wait.  We’ve got two electrons on the same side of the field and they’re deflected in opposite directions then correct back.  Doesn’t that average out to no change?”

“Not quite.  The key word is mostly.  Like gravity fields, electromagnetic fields get weaker with distance.  Each up or down deflection to an electron on an outbound path will be smaller than the previous one so the ‘course corrections’ get less correct.  Inbound electrons get deflected ever more strongly on the way in, of course, but eventually they become outbound electrons and get messed up even more.  All those deflections produce an expanding cone of disturbed electrons along the path of the ray.”

“Hey, but when any electron moves that changes the fields, right?  Wouldn’t there be a cone of disturbed field, too?”

“Absolutely.  The whole process leads to several kinds of dispersion.”

“Like what?”

“The obvious one is simple geometry.  What had been a simple straight-line ray is now an expanding cone of secondary emission.  Suppose you’re an astronomer looking at a planet that’s along that ray, for instance.  Light’s getting to you from throughout the cone, not just from the straight line.  You’re going to get a blurred picture.”

“What’s another kind?”

“Moving those electrons around extracts energy from the wave.  Some fraction of the ray’s original photons get converted to lower-energy ones with lower frequencies.  The net result is that the ray’s spectrum is spread and dispersed towards the red.”

“You said several kinds.”

“The last one’s a doozy — it affects the speeds of light.”

“‘Speeds,’ plural?”ripples in a wave

“There’s the speed of field’s ripples, and there’s the speed of the whole signal, say when a star goes nova.  Here’s a picture I built on Old Reliable.  The gold line is the electric field — see how the ripples make the red electron wobble?  The green dots on the axis give you comparison points that don’t move.  Watch how the ripples move left to right just like the signal does, but at their own speed.”

“Which one’s Einstein’s?”

“The signal.  Its speed is called the group velocity and in space always runs 186,000 mph.  The ripple speed, technically it’s the phase velocity, is slower because of that extracted-and-redistributed-energy process.  Different frequencies get different slowdowns, which gives astronomers clues about the interstellar medium.”

“Clues are good.”

~~ Rich Olcott