The Spooky Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation

image of the face of einstein

Our story begins a little over one hundred years ago in Bern, Switzerland, where a young man employed as a patent clerk went off to work. He took the electric trolley in each day, and each day he would pass an unassuming clock tower. But today was different, it was special. For today he would pose to himself a question – a question whose answer would set forth a fascinating dilemma.

The hands of the clock appeared to move the same no matter if his trolley was stopped or was speeding away from the clock tower. He knew that the electromagnetic radiation which enabled him to see the clock traveled at a finite speed. He also knew that the speed of the light was incredibly great compared to the speed of his trolley. So great that there would not be any noticeable difference in how he saw the hands of the clock move, despite him being at rest or in motion. But what if his trolley was moving at the speed of the reflected light coming from the clock? How would the hands of the clock appear to move? Indeed, they could not. Or if they did, it would not appear so to him. It would appear as if all movement of the clock’s hands had stopped – frozen in an instant of time.  But yet if he looked at the hands of the watch in his pocket, they would appear to move normally. How does one explain the difference between the time of the clock tower versus the time of his watch? And which one was correct?

There was no way for him to know that it would take three years to answer this question. No way for him to know that the answer would eventually lead to the discovery of matter and energy being one and the same. No way to know that he, this underemployed patent clerk making a simple observation, would soon unearth the answer to one of the greatest mysteries that had stumped every mind that came before his – the very nature of time itself.

Now it might have taken Einstein a few years to develop the answer we now know as the Special Theory of Relativity, but it most certainly took him no longer than a few days to realize that Isaac Newton…

must be wrong.

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Trying to measure the speed of light with an Arduino

We know that measuring the speed of light with an Arduino is possible. It’s just that the implementation is hard.

Last month we saw [Udo]‘s blinkenlight shield that can be used as a line scan camera. It’s a neat piece of kit, but [Udo] really wants to submit something for the Buildlounge laser cutter giveaway, so he figured measuring the speed of light would be an easy project. If a kid and a chocolate bar can do it, surely it can’t be too hard.

[Udo] hit upon the idea of pulsing a laser pointer and measuring the time of the reflection. Because his blinkenlight shield can be used as a light sensor, all that’s needed is a mirror and a pretty long line of sight. There’s a few problems with the setup though: with the Arduino running at 16 MHz, a photon will travel 19 meters in one clock cycle.

Even with some very clever coding, we’re not really sure detecting an emitted photon is possible at such (relatively) slow clock speeds. We’re thinking [Udo] could source a few hundred meters of optic fiber so the entire experiment could fit on a desk, but feel free to drop a note in the comments if you’ve got a better idea. [Udo]‘s demo of his blinkenlight/laser mashup is after the break.

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