Tag Archives: radio sources

Light Travel Time Effects and Cosmological Features

This unpublished article is a sequel to my earlier paper (also posted here as “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?“). This blog version contains the abstract, introduction and conclusions. The full version of the article is available as a PDF file.



Light travel time effects (LTT) are an optical manifestation of the finite speed of light. They can also be considered perceptual constraints to the cognitive picture of space and time. Based on this interpretation of LTT effects, we recently presented a new hypothetical model for the temporal and spatial variation of the spectrum of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB) and radio sources. In this article, we take the analysis further and show that LTT effects can provide a good framework to describe such cosmological features as the redshift observation of an expanding universe, and the cosmic microwave background radiation. The unification of these seemingly distinct phenomena at vastly different length and time scales, along with its conceptual simplicity, can be regarded as indicators of the curious usefulness of this framework, if not its validity.


The finite speed of light plays an important part in how we perceive distance and speed. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that things are not as we see them. The sun that we see, for instance, is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is trivial; if we want to know what is going on at the sun now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We, nonetheless, have to “correct” for this distortion in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to sensing motion, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception of motion to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

Exploring the second option, we assume an underlying reality that gives rise to our perceived picture. We further model this underlying reality as obeying classical mechanics, and work out our perceived picture through the apparatus of perception. In other words, we do not attribute the manifestations of the finite speed of light to the properties of the underlying reality. Instead, we work out our perceived picture that this model predicts and verify whether the properties we do observe can originate from this perceptual constraint.

Space, the objects in it, and their motion are, by and large, the product of optical perception. One tends to take it for granted that perception arises from reality as one perceives it. In this article, we take the position that what we perceive is an incomplete or distorted picture of an underlying reality. Further, we are trying out classical mechanics for the the underlying reality (for which we use terms like absolute, noumenal or physical reality) that does cause our perception to see if it fits with our perceived picture (which we may refer to as sensed or phenomenal reality).

Note that we are not implying that the manifestations of perception are mere delusions. They are not; they are indeed part of our sensed reality because reality is an end result of perception. This insight may be behind Goethe’s famous statement, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

We applied this line of thinking to a physics problem recently. We looked at the spectral evolution of a GRB and found it to be remarkably similar to that in a sonic boom. Using this fact, we presented a model for GRB as our perception of a “luminal” boom, with the understanding that it is our perceived picture of reality that obeys Lorentz invariance and our model for the underlying reality (causing the perceived picture) may violate relativistic physics. The striking agreement between the model and the observed features, however, extended beyond GRBs to symmetric radio sources, which can also be regarded as perceptual effects of hypothetical luminal booms.

In this article, we look at other implications of the model. We start with the similarities between the light travel time (LTT) effects and the coordinate transformation in Special Relativity (SR). These similarities are hardly surprising because SR is derived partly based on LTT effects. We then propose an interpretation of SR as a formalization of LTT effects and study a few observed cosmological phenomena in the light of this interpretation.

Similarities between Light Travel Time Effects and SR

Special relativity seeks a linear coordinate transformation between coordinate systems in motion with respect to each other. We can trace the origin of linearity to a hidden assumption on the nature of space and time built into SR, as stated by Einstein: “In the first place it is clear that the equations must be linear on account of the properties of homogeneity which we attribute to space and time.” Because of this assumption of linearity, the original derivation of the transformation equations ignores the asymmetry between approaching and receding objects. Both approaching and receding objects can be described by two coordinate systems that are always receding from each other. For instance, if a system K is moving with respect to another system k along the positive X axis of k, then an object at rest in K at a positive x is receding while another object at a negative x is approaching an observer at the origin of k.

The coordinate transformation in Einstein’s original paper is derived, in part, a manifestation of the light travel time (LTT) effects and the consequence of imposing the constancy of light speed in all inertial frames. This is most obvious in the first thought experiment, where observers moving with a rod find their clocks not synchronized due to the difference in light travel times along the length of the rod. However, in the current interpretation of SR, the coordinate transformation is considered a basic property of space and time.

One difficulty that arises from this interpretation of SR is that the definition of the relative velocity between the two inertial frames becomes ambiguous. If it is the velocity of the moving frame as measured by the observer, then the observed superluminal motion in radio jets starting from the core region becomes a violation of SR. If it is a velocity that we have to deduce by considering LT effects, then we have to employ the extra ad-hoc assumption that superluminality is forbidden. These difficulties suggest that it may be better to disentangle the light travel time effects from the rest of SR.

In this section, we will consider space and time as a part of the cognitive model created by the brain, and argue that special relativity applies to the cognitive model. The absolute reality (of which the SR-like space-time is our perception) does not have to obey the restrictions of SR. In particular, objects are not restricted to subluminal speeds, but they may appear to us as though they are restricted to subluminal speeds in our perception of space and time. If we disentangle LTT effects from the rest of SR, we can understand a wide array of phenomena, as we shall see in this article.

Unlike SR, considerations based on LTT effects result in intrinsically different set of transformation laws for objects approaching an observer and those receding from him. More generally, the transformation depends on the angle between the velocity of the object and the observer’s line of sight. Since the transformation equations based on LTT effects treat approaching and receding objects asymmetrically, they provide a natural solution to the twin paradox, for instance.


Because space and time are a part of a reality created out of light inputs to our eyes, some of their properties are manifestations of LTT effects, especially on our perception of motion. The absolute, physical reality presumably generating the light inputs does not have to obey the properties we ascribe to our perceived space and time.

We showed that LTT effects are qualitatively identical to those of SR, noting that SR only considers frames of reference receding from each other. This similarity is not surprising because the coordinate transformation in SR is derived based partly on LTT effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. In treating it as a manifestation of LTT, we did not address the primary motivation of SR, which is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations. It may be possible to disentangle the covariance of electrodynamics from the coordinate transformation, although it is not attempted in this article.

Unlike SR, LTT effects are asymmetric. This asymmetry provides a resolution to the twin paradox and an interpretation of the assumed causality violations associated with superluminality. Furthermore, the perception of superluminality is modulated by LTT effects, and explains gamma ray bursts and symmetric jets. As we showed in the article, perception of superluminal motion also holds an explanation for cosmological phenomena like the expansion of the universe and cosmic microwave background radiation. LTT effects should be considered as a fundamental constraint in our perception, and consequently in physics, rather than as a convenient explanation for isolated phenomena.

Given that our perception is filtered through LTT effects, we have to deconvolute them from our perceived reality in order to understand the nature of the absolute, physical reality. This deconvolution, however, results in multiple solutions. Thus, the absolute, physical reality is beyond our grasp, and any assumed properties of the absolute reality can only be validated through how well the resultant perceived reality agrees with our observations. In this article, we assumed that the underlying reality obeys our intuitively obvious classical mechanics and asked the question how such a reality would be perceived when filtered through light travel time effects. We demonstrated that this particular treatment could explain certain astrophysical and cosmological phenomena that we observe.

The coordinate transformation in SR can be viewed as a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate the distortions in our perception of motion due to light travel time effects. One may be tempted to argue that SR applies to the “real” space and time, not our perception. This line of argument begs the question, what is real? Reality is only a cognitive model created in our brain starting from our sensory inputs, visual inputs being the most significant. Space itself is a part of this cognitive model. The properties of space are a mapping of the constraints of our perception.

The choice of accepting our perception as a true image of reality and redefining space and time as described in special relativity indeed amounts to a philosophical choice. The alternative presented in the article is inspired by the view in modern neuroscience that reality is a cognitive model in the brain based on our sensory inputs. Adopting this alternative reduces us to guessing the nature of the absolute reality and comparing its predicted projection to our real perception. It may simplify and elucidate some theories in physics and explain some puzzling phenomena in our universe. However, this option is yet another philosophical stance against the unknowable absolute reality.

Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?

This article was published in the International Journal of Modern Physics D (IJMP–D) in 2007. It soon became the Top Accessed Article of the journal by Jan 2008.

Although it might seem like a hard core physics article, it is in fact an application of the philosophical insight permeating this blog and my book.

This blog version contains the abstract, introduction and conclusions. The full version of the article is available as a PDF file.

Journal Reference: IJMP-D Vol. 16, No. 6 (2007) pp. 983–1000.



The softening of the GRB afterglow bears remarkable similarities to the frequency evolution in a sonic boom. At the front end of the sonic boom cone, the frequency is infinite, much like a Gamma Ray Burst (GRB). Inside the cone, the frequency rapidly decreases to infrasonic ranges and the sound source appears at two places at the same time, mimicking the double-lobed radio sources. Although a “luminal” boom violates the Lorentz invariance and is therefore forbidden, it is tempting to work out the details and compare them with existing data. This temptation is further enhanced by the observed superluminality in the celestial objects associated with radio sources and some GRBs. In this article, we calculate the temporal and spatial variation of observed frequencies from a hypothetical luminal boom and show remarkable similarity between our calculations and current observations.


A sonic boom is created when an object emitting sound passes through the medium faster than the speed of sound in that medium. As the object traverses the medium, the sound it emits creates a conical wavefront, as shown in Figure 1. The sound frequency at this wavefront is infinite because of the Doppler shift. The frequency behind the conical wavefront drops dramatically and soon reaches the infrasonic range. This frequency evolution is remarkably similar to afterglow evolution of a gamma ray burst (GRB).

Sonic Boom
Figure 1:. The frequency evolution of sound waves as a result of the Doppler effect in supersonic motion. The supersonic object S is moving along the arrow. The sound waves are “inverted” due to the motion, so that the waves emitted at two different points in the trajectory merge and reach the observer (at O) at the same time. When the wavefront hits the observer, the frequency is infinity. After that, the frequency rapidly decreases.

Gamma Ray Bursts are very brief, but intense flashes of \gamma rays in the sky, lasting from a few milliseconds to several minutes, and are currently believed to emanate from cataclysmic stellar collapses. The short flashes (the prompt emissions) are followed by an afterglow of progressively softer energies. Thus, the initial \gamma rays are promptly replaced by X-rays, light and even radio frequency waves. This softening of the spectrum has been known for quite some time, and was first described using a hypernova (fireball) model. In this model, a relativistically expanding fireball produces the \gamma emission, and the spectrum softens as the fireball cools down. The model calculates the energy released in the \gamma region as 10^ {53}10^ {54} ergs in a few seconds. This energy output is similar to about 1000 times the total energy released by the sun over its entire lifetime.

More recently, an inverse decay of the peak energy with varying time constant has been used to empirically fit the observed time evolution of the peak energy using a collapsar model. According to this model, GRBs are produced when the energy of highly relativistic flows in stellar collapses are dissipated, with the resulting radiation jets angled properly with respect to our line of sight. The collapsar model estimates a lower energy output because the energy release is not isotropic, but concentrated along the jets. However, the rate of the collapsar events has to be corrected for the fraction of the solid angle within which the radiation jets can appear as GRBs. GRBs are observed roughly at the rate of once a day. Thus, the expected rate of the cataclysmic events powering the GRBs is of the order of 10^410^6 per day. Because of this inverse relationship between the rate and the estimated energy output, the total energy released per observed GRB remains the same.

If we think of a GRB as an effect similar to the sonic boom in supersonic motion, the assumed cataclysmic energy requirement becomes superfluous. Another feature of our perception of supersonic object is that we hear the sound source at two different location as the same time, as illustrated in Figure 2. This curious effect takes place because the sound waves emitted at two different points in the trajectory of the supersonic object reach the observer at the same instant in time. The end result of this effect is the perception of a symmetrically receding pair of sound sources, which, in the luminal world, is a good description of symmetric radio sources (Double Radio source Associated with Galactic Nucleus or DRAGN).

Figure 2:. The object is flying from to A through and B at a constant supersonic speed. Imagine that the object emits sound during its travel. The sound emitted at the point (which is near the point of closest approach B) reaches the observer at O before the sound emitted earlier at . The instant when the sound at an earlier point reaches the observer, the sound emitted at a much later point A also reaches O. So, the sound emitted at A and reaches the observer at the same time, giving the impression that the object is at these two points at the same time. In other words, the observer hears two objects moving away from rather than one real object.

Radio Sources are typically symmetric and seem associated with galactic cores, currently considered manifestations of space-time singularities or neutron stars. Different classes of such objects associated with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) were found in the last fifty years. Figure 3 shows the radio galaxy Cygnus A, an example of such a radio source and one of the brightest radio objects. Many of its features are common to most extragalactic radio sources: the symmetric double lobes, an indication of a core, an appearance of jets feeding the lobes and the hotspots. Some researchers have reported more detailed kinematical features, such as the proper motion of the hotspots in the lobes.

Symmetric radio sources (galactic or extragalactic) and GRBs may appear to be completely distinct phenomena. However, their cores show a similar time evolution in the peak energy, but with vastly different time constants. The spectra of GRBs rapidly evolve from \gamma region to an optical or even RF afterglow, similar to the spectral evolution of the hotspots of a radio source as they move from the core to the lobes. Other similarities have begun to attract attention in the recent years.

This article explores the similarities between a hypothetical “luminal” boom and these two astrophysical phenomena, although such a luminal boom is forbidden by the Lorentz invariance. Treating GRB as a manifestation of a hypothetical luminal boom results in a model that unifies these two phenomena and makes detailed predictions of their kinematics.

Figure 3:.The radio jet and lobes in the hyperluminous radio galaxy Cygnus A. The hotspots in the two lobes, the core region and the jets are clearly visible. (Reproduced from an image courtesy of NRAO/AUI.)


In this article, we looked at the spatio-temporal evolution of a supersonic object (both in its position and the sound frequency we hear). We showed that it closely resembles GRBs and DRAGNs if we were to extend the calculations to light, although a luminal boom would necessitate superluminal motion and is therefore forbidden.

This difficulty notwithstanding, we presented a unified model for Gamma Ray Bursts and jet like radio sources based on bulk superluminal motion. We showed that a single superluminal object flying across our field of vision would appear to us as the symmetric separation of two objects from a fixed core. Using this fact as the model for symmetric jets and GRBs, we explained their kinematic features quantitatively. In particular, we showed that the angle of separation of the hotspots was parabolic in time, and the redshifts of the two hotspots were almost identical to each other. Even the fact that the spectra of the hotspots are in the radio frequency region is explained by assuming hyperluminal motion and the consequent redshift of the black body radiation of a typical star. The time evolution of the black body radiation of a superluminal object is completely consistent with the softening of the spectra observed in GRBs and radio sources. In addition, our model explains why there is significant blue shift at the core regions of radio sources, why radio sources seem to be associated with optical galaxies and why GRBs appear at random points with no advance indication of their impending appearance.

Although it does not address the energetics issues (the origin of superluminality), our model presents an intriguing option based on how we would perceive hypothetical superluminal motion. We presented a set of predictions and compared them to existing data from DRAGNs and GRBs. The features such as the blueness of the core, symmetry of the lobes, the transient \gamma and X-Ray bursts, the measured evolution of the spectra along the jet all find natural and simple explanations in this model as perceptual effects. Encouraged by this initial success, we may accept our model based on luminal boom as a working model for these astrophysical phenomena.

It has to be emphasized that perceptual effects can masquerade as apparent violations of traditional physics. An example of such an effect is the apparent superluminal motion, which was explained and anticipated within the context of the special theory of relativity even before it was actually observed. Although the observation of superluminal motion was the starting point behind the work presented in this article, it is by no means an indication of the validity of our model. The similarity between a sonic boom and a hypothetical luminal boom in spatio-temporal and spectral evolution is presented here as a curious, albeit probably unsound, foundation for our model.

One can, however, argue that the special theory of relativity (SR) does not deal with superluminality and, therefore, superluminal motion and luminal booms are not inconsistent with SR. As evidenced by the opening statements of Einstein’s original paper, the primary motivation for SR is a covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations, which requires a coordinate transformation derived based partly on light travel time (LTT) effects, and partly on the assumption that light travels at the same speed with respect to all inertial frames. Despite this dependence on LTT, the LTT effects are currently assumed to apply on a space-time that obeys SR. SR is a redefinition of space and time (or, more generally, reality) in order to accommodate its two basic postulates. It may be that there is a deeper structure to space-time, of which SR is only our perception, filtered through the LTT effects. By treating them as an optical illusion to be applied on a space-time that obeys SR, we may be double counting them. We may avoid the double counting by disentangling the covariance of Maxwell’s equations from the coordinate transformations part of SR. Treating the LTT effects separately (without attributing their consequences to the basic nature of space and time), we can accommodate superluminality and obtain elegant explanations of the astrophysical phenomena described in this article. Our unified explanation for GRBs and symmetric radio sources, therefore, has implications as far reaching as our basic understanding of the nature of space and time.

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video