The speed of light, a spin off from longitude research.

When I was growing up in the dim and distant twentieth century spin-off was one of the most frequently used buzz words in the public discussion of science and technology; a spin-off being an unintended and unexpected positive product of scientific or technological research. Politicians would use the term to justify high levels of expenditure on political prestige projects claiming that the voters/taxpayers would benefit through the spin-offs from the research. The example that was almost always quoted by the media was that the non-stick coating for frying pans was a spin-off from the space programme. This is, like many popular stories in the history of science and technology, actually a myth but that is not the subject of this post.

Now spin-offs are not a modern phenomenon but have been turning up ever since humans first began hammering bits of stone to make tools and as the title of this post suggests, the first successful scientific determination of the speed of light was actually a spin-off from a project to find a more accurate way to determine longitude.

The speed of light had been a problem since at least the beginning of the ancient Greek study of optics. The Greeks themselves were split into two camps on the subject. Some like Empedocles, on whose shoulders the beginnings of much of Greek science rests, thought that the speed of light was finite arguing that light was something in motion and therefore required time to travel. Heron of Alexandria, a representative of the geometrical school of optics, thought that the transmission of light was spontaneous, the speed thus infinite, because extremely distant objects such as stars appear instantly when we open our eyes. Down through the ages those writing on optics took one side or the other in the argument. In the seventeenth century two of the most important optical experts Kepler and Descartes both argued for an infinite speed of light . Galileo and Isaac Beeckman, who both thought the speed of light was finite, proposed, and may have carried out, experiments to try and determine the speed of light but were of course defeated by its actually extremely high velocity and their very, very primitive timing devices. The actual solution came from the astronomers and it was Galileo who unwittingly set the ball rolling. [Modified 26.09.2013 I done screwed up again! See comments]

In 1610 Galileo and Simon Marius both discovered the four largest, or Galilean, Moons of Jupiter, Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The orbits of the four are all relatively short and they disappear and reappear from behind Jupiter in a complex but regular dance. Galileo realised that if one could determine the orbits accurately enough then one could use these disappearances and reappearances (eclipses of the moons) as an astronomical clock in order to determine longitude. One would need to create an accurate table of the time of the eclipses for a given prime meridian then in order to determine the longitude of a given point the cartographer-astronomer only needs to determine the local time of the occurrence of one of the eclipses look in his tables to calculate the time difference and thus the longitude difference to his prime meridian. Having thought up this, actually quite brilliant, idea Galileo, never one to pass up a chance to shine and at the same time earn a fast buck, tried to sell it first to Spain and then to Holland; an interesting combination as the two countries were at war with each other at the time. Both sales pitches failed and Galileo never actually produced the necessary tables. Fast-forward about fifty years to Paris.

Ensconced in the new observatory in Paris and equipped with far superior telescopes to those of Galileo, Europe’s star astronomer, Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini took up the task abandoned by Galileo and produced the necessary tables to a high enough degree of accuracy to enable the French astronomer-cartographers to accurately determine longitude. (I should point out that this method is impractical at sea as the accurate telescopic observation of the moons of Jupiter on a rolling ship is well-nigh impossible). This is a pan European story. We started in Germany and Northern Italy then moving on to Paris we now take a short diversion to Denmark to meet Ole Rømer.

Ole Rømer by Jacob Coning c.1700

Ole Rømer
by Jacob Coning c.1700

Ole Rømer was born in Århus on the 25th September 1644. In 1662 he started studying at the University of Copenhagen under the mathematician and physician Rasmus Bartholin. In 1671 the French astronomer-cartographer Jean Picard went to Demark to accurately re-measure the latitude and longitude of Tycho Brahe’s observatory on the island of Hven, using the moons of Jupiter, in order to better integrate Tycho’s observation into those made by the observatory in Paris. Picard took Rømer with him to Hven as an assistant. Much impressed by the young Dane Picard offered to take him back with him to Paris. Given the chance of working at the world’s leading centre for astronomical research at that time, Rømer didn’t hesitate, packed his bags and was soon installed as an assistant to Cassini at the Paris Observatory.

A problem had turned up in the eclipse tables for the moons of Jupiter and Rømer took part in the observation programme to try and determine where the error lay. His observations showed that the period between the eclipse of Io got shorter as Earth got closer to Jupiter and longer as Earth moved away. Over a period of eight years Rømer observed and accurately calculated the delay in the eclipse time, which were in fact due to the finite speed of light and the differences in the distance that the light from Io must travel depending on the relative positions of Earth and Jupiter. On the assumption that this was indeed the cause and that the speed of light was finite Christiaan Huygens calculated it from Rømer’s figures producing the first ever scientific calculation of the speed of light. The figure at about 200 000 km per sec is too low and was not universally accepted as many still believed that the speed of light was infinite. The matter was finally settled as James Bradley discovered stellar aberration in the 1720’s and used it to calculate a more accurate figure.

Rømer returned to Copenhagen in 1681 as professor of astronomy at the university, where he made further minor contribution to the sciences. However he’ll always be chiefly remembered as the man who first determined that the speed of light is finite and produced a measure of that speed.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science

10 responses to “The speed of light, a spin off from longitude research.

  1. Michael Weiss

    Pretty cool!

    It’s also interesting that the effect (the shorter or longer observed observed periods of the eclipses) is really an example of the Doppler effect. Normally we think of the Doppler effect for wavecrests of light or sound, but it applies to the transmission of any periodic phenomenon.

  2. laura

    Are you sure Descartes thought light moved at a finite speed? I haven’t read enough about Descartes to be sure, but I read an analysis of La Dioptrique a couple of weeks ago (which now I can’t find of course) that says the opposite. And I just checked a translation of Le Monde, in which Descartes says light travels in “an instant”. Did he change his mind later?

    Either way, very cool post as usual.

    • thonyc

      You are of course totally right, Descartes did in fact believe that the speed of light was infinite. I misread a source and in a hurry wrote some crap. Thank you for catching my error, I have modified the text above. 😉

  3. Dr. M.Doudah

    Since 1983 the accepted value of the speed of light (c) is huge: 299792.458 km. per second in vacuum, so what is the distance should be covered by the speed of light in a day, it is an out of imagination value, no distance on the surface of earth is suitable, it necessitates to be described; an astronomical measure by the motion of a celestial objet with a known motion, hence the moon is the choice; because it is the nearest celestial object and its motion around earth is known well.
    In Physics; the light and all physical forces in nature have a unified uppermost magnitude of speed, in vacuum, i.e. in a system of motion isolated from any outside effect. So, to use the E-M system as a measure in a Balanced Equation with light; it should be isolated also from any outside effect, i.e. as it was reckoned before that earth has no motion around sun, and the moon is devoid from the variation ratio in distance; that cannot be detected by the naked eye.
    By using the isolated E-M system as a measure to the distance covered by the speed of light in a day; the motion should be relative to a far star, hence the moon’s mean orbital velocity should be analyzed in the original direction after a cycle; and the rotation period of the earth (a sidereal day) is considered, which is: 86164.09966 seconds. According to NASA; the moon’s average orbital velocity is about: 1.023 km./ seconds (Revised 08-01-2014)4, By calculation using the value: 1.022794272 (about 1.023) km./ seconds; the distance covered by the speed of light in a day is comparable to the distance covered by the moon in 1000 lunar years (12000 cycles), as the lunar year is considered in the lunar calendar since ancient times as 12 cycles of the moon around earth.

    The average moon’s velocity is: 1.022794272 km./ seconds, the basic ratio is: 0.8915725423; so the basic moon’s velocity is: (1.022794272 × 0.8915725423) = 0.9118952893 km./ seconds. The moon’s revolution period (T’) is: 27.32166088 mean earth days = 27.32166088 × 24 × 60 × 60 = 2360591.5 seconds, hence the length of the basic moon’s orbit (L’) after one cycle = v’ × T’ = 0.9118952893 × 2360591.5 = 2152612.269 km., the lunar distance in 12000 cycles = 2583134723 km., then the speed of light in vacuum is: 2583134723/ 86164.09966 = 299792.458 km. per second, which is the exact known and accepted value in Physics for speed of light in vacuum since 1983.

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  6. carlvehse

    Ole Christensen Rømer, a Danish Lutheran astronomer, who, in 1676, discovered that the speed of light was finite. The discovery was so profound that except for a few (e.g., Newton and Huygen), astronomers and physicists did not accept it until confirmed by James Bradley a half-century later (and two decades after Rømer’s death.

    That discovery was important to our 20th century friend, Albert Einstein, and, in effect, turned the telescope into a time machine that could look into the past. Rømer’s contributions to science and his native Denmark go well beyond his accomplishments in astronomy and his position as professor of mathematics at the University of Copenhagen, and ultimately Astronomer Royal to King Christian V of Denmark.

    Rømer was an important inventor. He also served his country as the master of the mint, inspector of naval architecture, purveyor of harbors, and advisor on pyrotechnics and ballistics. He also reorganized and standardized the Danish systems of weights and measures. He headed a commission to inspect Denmark’s highways and helped make various trade agreements.

    In 1693 he was appointed first magistrate (similar to the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice). He served as mayor of Copenhagen and as Denmark’s chief tax assessor and revised the system for a more equitable taxation. Later he was made senator, then head of Denmark’s state council. And it was Rømer who urged for many years that Denmark adopt the modern calendar (it was not done until after his death).

    Rømer also invented the 2-point calibrated temperature scale that was, with acknowledgement and some slight adjustments, used by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, another Lutheran physicist, to make his temperature scale still used in the United States.

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  8. Aniruddha

    Reblogged this on Aniruddha's Articles and commented:
    This one is really worth a read.

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