Why the Speed of Light?

What is so special about light that its speed should figure in the basic structure of space and time and our reality? This is the question that has nagged many scientists ever since Albert Einstein published On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies about 100 years ago.

In order to understand the specialness of light in our space and time, we need to study how we perceive the world around us and how reality is created in our brains. We perceive our world using our senses. The sensory signals that our senses collect are then relayed to our brains. The brain creates a cognitive model, a representation of the sensory inputs, and presents it to our conscious awareness as reality. Our visual reality consists of space much like our auditory world is made up of sounds.

Just as sounds are a perceptual experience rather than a fundamental property of the physical reality, space also is an experience, or a cognitive representation of the visual inputs, not a fundamental aspect of “the world” our senses are trying to sense.

Space and time together form what physics considers the basis of reality. The only way we can understand the limitations in our reality is by studying the limitations in our senses themselves.

At a fundamental level, how do our senses work? Our sense of sight operates using light, and the fundamental interaction involved in sight falls in the electromagnetic (EM) category because light (or photon) is the intermediary of EM interactions. The exclusivity of EM interaction is not limited to our the long range sense of sight; all the short range senses (touch, taste, smell and hearing) are also EM in nature. To understand the limitations of our perception of space, we need not highlight the EM nature of all our senses. Space is, by and large, the result of our sight sense. But it is worthwhile to keep in mind that we would have no sensing, and indeed no reality, in the absence of EM interactions.

Like our senses, all our technological extensions to our senses (such as radio telescopes, electron microscopes, redshift measurements and even gravitational lensing) use EM interactions exclusively to measure our universe. Thus, we cannot escape the basic constraints of our perception even when we use modern instruments. The Hubble telescope may see a billion light years farther than our naked eyes, but what it sees is still a billion years older than what our eyes see. Our perceived reality, whether built upon direct sensory inputs or technologically enhanced, is a subset of electromagnetic particles and interactions only. It is a projection of EM particles and interactions into our sensory and cognitive space, a possibly imperfect projection.

This statement about the exclusivity of EM interactions in our perceived reality is often met with a bit of skepticism, mainly due to a misconception that we can sense gravity directly. This confusion arises because our bodies are subject to gravity. There is a fine distinction between “being subject to” and “being able to sense” gravitational force.

This difference is illustrated by a simple thought experiment: Imagine a human subject placed in front of an object made entirely of cosmological dark matter. There is no other visible matter anywhere the subject can see it. Given that the dark matter exerts gravitational force on the subject, will he be able to sense its presence? He will be pulled toward it, but how will he know that he is being pulled or that he is moving? He can possibly design some mechanical contraption to detect the gravity of the dark matter object. But then he will be sensing the effect of gravity on some matter using EM interactions. For instance, he may be able to see his unexplained acceleration (effect of gravity on his body, which is EM matter) with respect to reference objects such as stars. But the sensing part here (seeing the stars) involves EM interactions.

It is impossible to design any mechanical contraption to detect gravity that is devoid of EM matter. The gravity sensing in our ears again measures the effect of gravity on EM matter. In the absence of EM interaction, it is impossible to sense gravity, or anything else for that matter.

Electromagnetic interactions are responsible for our sensory inputs. Sensory perception leads to our brain’s representation that we call reality. Any limitation in this chain leads to a corresponding limitation in our sense of reality. One limitation in the chain from senses to reality is the finite speed of photon, which is the gauge boson of our senses. The finite speed of the sense modality influences and distorts our perception of motion, space and time. Because these distortions are perceived as a part of our reality itself, the root cause of the distortion becomes a fundamental property of our reality. This is how the speed of light becomes such an important constant in our space time. The sanctity of light is respected only in our perceived reality.

If we trust the imperfect perception and try to describe what we sense at cosmological scales, we end up with views of the world such as the big bang theory in modern cosmology and the general and special theories of relativity. These theories are not wrong, and the purpose of this book is not to prove them wrong, just to point out that they are descriptions of a perceived reality. They do not describe the physical causes behind the sensory inputs. The physical causes belong to an absolute reality beyond our senses.

The distinction between the absolute reality and our perception of it can be further developed and applied to certain specific astrophysical and cosmological phenomena. When it comes to the physics that happens well beyond our sensory ranges, we really have to take into account the role that our perception and cognition play in seeing them. The universe as we see it is only a cognitive model created out of the photons falling on our retina or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope. Because of the finite speed of the information carrier (namely photons), our perception is distorted in such a way as to give us the impression that space and time obey special relativity. They do, but space and time are not the absolute reality. They are only a part of the unreal universe that is our perception of an unknowable reality.

[This again is an edited excerpt from my book, The Unreal Universe.]