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The Speed of Light

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 30 November 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the speed of light. Scientists and thinkers have been fascinated with the speed of light for millennia. Aristotle wrongly contended that the speed of light was infinite, but it was the 17th Century before serious attempts were made to measure its actual velocity – we now know that it’s 186,000 miles per second.

Then in 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity predicted that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This then has dramatic effects on the nature of space and time. It’s been thought the speed of light is a constant in Nature, a kind of cosmic speed limit, now the scientists aren’t so sure.

With John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences and Gresham Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University; Iwan Morus, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University.

  • Further Reading

    John D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega (Jonathan Cape, London and Pantheon, New York, 2002)

    John D. Barrow, The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless (Pantheon, 2005)

    For a general overview of nineteenth-century physics, especially attitudes about the ether and Brit/German differences –
    Iwan Morus, When Physics became King (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

    For theories of light after Newton –
    Geoffrey Cantor, Optics after Newton (Manchester University Press, 1984)

    Still the best Maxwell biography with a nice selection of extracts from letters and the like -
    Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (Macmillan, 1882)

    Good on the background and context to Einstein -
    Peter Galison, Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps (Sceptre, 2004)

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