Is it possible for a patch of light (or a shadow to travel faster than the speed of light?
i.e. if a searchlight were swung around very fast, would the patch of light on the clouds be able to
move at ANY speed, depending how far away the clouds are?
Asked by: Mark Griffiths
Answer
Yes, a PATCH of light can appear to travel at any speed.
The Special Theory of Relativity sets c (the speed of
light in a vacuum) as the speed limit for any physical
object or packet of energy.
Your examples do not violate Relativity principles because
any single photon does not exceed c. Imagine throwing
tennis balls along a wall, with each ball hitting some
distance to the right of the previous one. The apparent
path of each hit against the wall moves at a rate that
depends only on the distance between them and how frequently
the balls are thrown. The speed of the balls is not
important. The 'patch of light' example just replaces
tennis balls with photons.
Note from the editor: However, even with your clever scheme, Mark, you can NOT transfer useful information faster than speed of light. Just think about it. Try to devise any scheme to transfer information by swinging a search light - it is impossible!
Answered by: Paul Walorski, B.A. Physics, Part-time Physics Instructor
'Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little; it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.'