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Why an object cannot arrive nor exceed the speed of light:

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The Speed Limit of the Universe

Benzion Blech

7/23/2010

Why objects cannot arrive near nor exceed the speed of light:

An Introduction to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

Benzion Blech

The speed of light has been called “nature’s speed limit” by physicists, while most people have absolutely no idea why. Although Einstein’s theory expounds upon this problem, the vast majority of the population would have a hard time understanding the mathematical jargon in the theory, thereby ruining the opportunity for one to understand some of the most interesting concepts that has ever been discovered- the theory of general relativity. In this paper, I will use two main equations to explain the nature of the speed of light, and why it is impossible to not only to arrive to this speed- it is practically impossible for an object to even approach it. The idea of this paper is not to explain the entire theory of relativity; rather, as the title states, this is merely an introduction to it. The paper will only expound upon one aspect of the theory; why the speed of light cannot be approached by an object other than a photon.

“What is the speed of light?”

The speed of light is approximately 3x10 8 m/s in a vacuum 1 . However, in any other type of medium (such as air or glass) light does slow down, at least to some degree. For example, a prism works on this concept; as a light beam enters the glass, some of the higher frequency radiation slows down compared to the lower frequency radiation. Therefore, the color violet is diffracted at a much greater degree (which is the highest frequency for visible electromagnetic radiation) compared to the color red (which is the lowest). However, as the theory goes, nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum. 2

1 This was proved both with the experiments of Newton, as well as the famous Michelson-Morley experiment using the Michelson interferometer.

2 Just to note, there has been recent evidence of the speed of light being broken by extremely excited gamma rays originating from distant supernovae. Instruments set up in Earth‟s orbit recorded small gamma ray peaks milliseconds before large peaks for the main „event‟ of the collapsing star‟s influx of gamma radiation arrived. This may provide proof of some gamma rays, when excited enough, can actually break the light-speed barrier. However, this discrepancy between excited and „relaxed‟ electromagnetic radiation can only be made over distances of thousands of light years at the very least.

Although this finding and others like it (such as constructive phase interference in excited x-ray radiation) may prove that the speed of light can be broken in certain instances, most physicists agree today with Einstein‟s constant for the speed of light. Therefore, this paper will expound on this theory and the equations that Einstein developed to prove the speed limit of the universe

The first equation to understand is the fundamental equation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity:

(

)

where m is the observed mass, m o is the rest mass, v is the velocity of the object, and c is the speed of light (which is a constant). As one can deduce from the above equation, as the speed of an object v approaches the speed of light c, the observed mass m approaches infinity. However, an object cannot arrive at the speed of light because the observed mass would be undefined (m o /0= undefined value). Similarly, and object cannot exceed the speed of light because the radical would become an imaginary number (the square root of any negative number is considered imaginary, meaning it does not actually exist).

If one would graph out the equation above using a graphing utility, the vertical asymptote would be visible at 3x10 8 on the x-axis (in this case, the velocity v is along the x-axis and the observed mass m is along the y-axis) which is the speed of light c in meters per second. Clearly, it is impossible to either arrive at the speed of light or exceed it. The plot of equation (1) is shown below:

As the plot above shows, the observed mass plotted on the y-axis approaches infinity as the x value (velocity) approaches 3x10 8 m/s.

The way to define this equation in terms of limits (and switching velocity v for x) would be:

( )

In terms of limits, as the velocity (denoted here as x) approaches the speed of light c, the limit of the function is infinite. Since the limit is infinite, practically there is no limit and it is therefore impossible to reach a value.

Another calculus function to prove the unreachable nature of the speed of light would be to take the definite integral of Equation (1). Using the fundamental theorem of calculus:

(

)

(

)

(

)

Where F(b) is the antiderivative of f(a) and F(b) is the antiderivative of f(b). Using the fundamental theorem and applying it to our case:

( )

[

(

|

|) |

|]

The above equation shows the improper integral 3 , and thereby the area under the curve of the function (energy) from x=0 to x=c. The result is a defined value only because this is an improper integral; in truth, there is no integral for the area bound by an asymptote. Since the energy needed is undefined, it would be impossible to provide enough energy to bring the velocity v to the speed of light c.

“Is it possible to bring an object very close to the speed of light?”

This question is quite ambiguous; the answer is “yes”, at least theoretically. As long as the object does not actually arrive at the speed of light, one should be able to define a value for the mass, no matter how large that may be. However, in the practical sense, the answer to this question is a resounding “no”.

3 In other words, the value for the integration is a defined value only because, as x approaches c, the area bound is extremely small. Therefore, the area for that section is considered zero. However, even though this may be true, the integral does not actually exist; a real integration cannot be done on an area bound by an asymptote.

As the velocity v of an object approaches the speed of light c, the value for the observed mass m grows over larger, actually approaching infinity. Although this may not seem to matter at the moment (who really cares if the mass gets more massive?), things get very tricky from there on.

Let us use the throwing of a ball as an example, which may be a little more intuitive. When you throw the ball, you are actually bringing that object’s velocity closer to the speed of light, no matter how small of an increment. Therefore, according to the equation for general relativity, you are increasing the observed mass (during the ball’s flight). However, since the velocity before and during flight is so small compared to the speed of light (which is 3x10 8 m/s) the observed mass would be practically the same. If you had an extremely accurate scale (that can measure about eight decimal places or so), you would see a difference in the mass of the ball before and after you threw it (during flight). Where did that mass come from? This seems to violate the first law of thermodynamics, which states that “mass or energy cannot be created nor destroyed in any process physical or chemical process”. So the question is again- where did the new mass of the ball come from?

The answer is- energy. Einstein’s famous “E=mc 2 ” shows the relationship between rest mass energy (not to confused with potential or kinetic energy 4 , which has to do with the energy of movement, not rest mass energy) and mass. When you throw a ball, you are putting in some measurable energy, which can add to the overall rest mass of the object.

Now it should be very clear why an object cannot, at least practically, approach near the speed of light. As the mass of the object goes to infinity, the energy needed to push that object to the velocity near the speed of light would also approach infinity (from E=mc 2 ). As the velocity gets closer to the speed of light, the energy required to accelerate the object even in tiny increments gets ever larger, approaching infinity as the object approaches the speed of light.

Although it would be impossible to send everyday objects even close to the speed of light, it is much more feasible to send particles, such as protons, close to the speed of light. Particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, have actually sent protons very close to the speed of light (they hope to accelerate protons to the velocity of 99.99% of the speed of light). The amount of energy the collider needs to

4 There are actually two different ways of looking at this issue. One way to look at it is through the problem of extra mass (and consequently the equation of choice would be E=mc 2 ). Another way to view this problem would be to ask “How much energy would I need to input into mass to reach the speed of light c?” which would therefore lead one to use the equation for kinetic energy (E=1/2mv 2 ). As the observed mass approaches infinity, the energy needed to raise the velocity v would approach infinity as well. In this paper we are looking from the perspective of discrepancy of mass rather than energy input; therefore “E=mc 2 ” is used instead. It is important to note that both approaches are correct; in fact they are inherently the same idea. Think about it.

accelerate the particle to these speeds is tremendous! However, as the equation of general relativity explains, it will be impossible to accelerate even a proton (which has a mass of 1.67x10 -27 kg, which is almost zero from our perspective) up to the speed of light, because it will take an infinite amount of energy input to make that a reality. Only photons, which are pure energy and zero mass, can approach the speed of light without any outside force.

The speed of light is truly nature’s speed limit.