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Imagine that a mast of a sailboat is 186,000 miles long, and the sailboat is moving to the right at a constant 10 miles per second. If you drop a ball from the top of the mast, the ball will land exactly at the base of the mast. The ball has two components to its velocity.

If the experiment is repeated with a pulse of light instead of a ball, then the pulse of light only has one component of velocity. The pulse of light is going directly down at 186,000 miles per second, but the pulse of light is not going to the right at 10 miles per second since the speed of light is independent of the speed of the source of light. Therefore, I would assume the pulse of light would miss the base of the mast by 10 miles.

Would the pulse of light actually hit the base of the mast?

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  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – lemon Jul 29 '15 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ Technical point: The ball will not land at the base of the mast. It will instead go flying off into space. Another name for your sailboat with a 186,000 mile long mast is "space elevator". $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Jul 29 '15 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ But light does have direction. The question is does it have inertia. If this was a laser would the light exit with any X (right) component. If not it would land 10 miles back. I am not sure. Gravity will bend light. $\endgroup$ – paparazzo Jul 29 '15 at 12:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Asim if you study at least some basics of special relativity, you will find an answer to your question. $\endgroup$ – Prof. Legolasov Jul 29 '15 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ Probably relevant: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/99289 $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jul 29 '15 at 14:36
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If the pulse of light is going directly down, it will miss the base of the mast. There ought to be nothing confusing at all about the speed of light being independent of the speed of the source. Light has an E=hf wave nature. Sound has a wave nature too, as do ocean waves and seismic waves. The speed of the waves depend on the properties of the medium. In mechanics a shear wave travels at a speed v = √(G/ρ) where G is the shear modulus of elasticity and ρ is density. In electromagnetism we have a similar expression c = √(1/ε0μ0) where ε0 is vacuum permittivity and μ0 is vacuum permeability.

But is it going straight down? Hindsight's comment probably refers to Lorentz transformation, wherein distances, directions, and other things appear to change when you move. Ah, I see David Hammen has given an answer referring to this. The direction "straight down" depends on the observer. Instead of a pulse of light, imagine you're dealing with a laser beam. An observer in the ship will claim the laser beam is pointing straight down vertically, an observer standing on the gedanken planet won't. There's nothing mysterious about this, have a read of the Wikipeda Aberration of light article for a simple explanation of how directions appear to change when you move. Note that there's a classical explanation and a relativistic explanation that refers to Lorentz transformation and the velocity addition formula.

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    $\begingroup$ I am still confused. The man with the laser pen at the top of the mast and the man at the bottom of the mast are in the same inertial reference frame. What would a man at the bottom of the mast see? Since the speed of light is independent of the speed of the source of light, I thought that the laser beam would miss by 10 miles, but if this happens then it is possible to perform an experiment in an inertial reference frame and deduce that you are in motion. This is not possible. So, is light behaving like a ball? Is light truly independent of the speed of the source of light? @JohnDuffield $\endgroup$ – Asim Jul 30 '15 at 23:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Asim : if both men are moving to the right at 10 miles per second, they agree that the light went down straight like this |. But the man who wasn't moving to the right says the light went down at an angle, like this \. It's all fairly simple once you understand it. Yes, the speed of light is truly independent of the speed of the source. And the reason why you always measure it to be moving at the same speed is the wave nature of matter. You calibrate your rods and clocks using the motion of waves, then use them to measure the motion of waves. $\endgroup$ – John Duffield Aug 2 '15 at 10:35
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What you have implicitly done is to create a single preferred frame of reference, the one in which the sailboat's velocity and the velocity of the beam of light are referenced. That is very contrary to relativity theory.

The ball is just a distraction here, as is gravitation. Instead of that sailboat with an impossibly tall mast, imagine a spaceship with that same impossibly long mast. Our spaceship is far removed from any gravitational sources.

Suppose a member on the ship's crew goes to the end of that mast, stops with respect to the mast, and aims a pulse of laser light at the base. The laser will of course hit the base of the mast. From this crew member's perspective, it will take one second for the light to travel from the end of the mast to the base.

Suppose some other crew member is flying around outside the spaceship, such that the spaceship appear to be moving at a velocity $\boldsymbol u$ orthogonal to the mast that is orthogonal to the mast. This is analogous to your situation where the sailboat is moving.

This other crew member will also see the laser pulse hit the base of the mast. The magnitude of the pulse of laser light is c from the perspective of this other crew member; the speed of light is a universal constant. However, from the perspective of this other crew member, the direction of that laser pulse is not directly toward the base. The velocity vector of that laser pulse instead has a component orthogonal to the mast, equal to $\boldsymbol u$. The component along the mast is a bit less than $c$.

In relativity, velocities don't add linearly as they do in Newtonian mechanics. You need to use the relativistic velocity addition formula to compute the composition of two velocity vectors.

If you use this formula to calculate the velocity of a pulse of light emitted by a source moving at some velocity $\boldsymbol u$ (where $u = ||\boldsymbol u||$ is less than $c$), you will find that the magnitude of the light pulse is always $c$, regardless of the source's motion, and regardless of the direction in which the pulse was emitted.

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    $\begingroup$ “Suppose a member on the ship's crew goes to the end of that mast, stops with respect to the mast, and aims a pulse of laser light at the base. The laser will of course hit the base of the mast.” It is obvious that a ball will hit the base of the mast, but why would the laser beam? The ball is influenced by the motion of the space ship, but the laser beam is not. Essentially, my question is how can light travel in a straight line (just like a ball) if light is not influenced by the motion of it source. How is this possible? @DavidHammen $\endgroup$ – Asim Aug 1 '15 at 22:09
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You are not alone if you have a problem with the "speed of light is the same independent of the motion of its source". This SR postulate appears to be completely ignored in the moving light clock experiment. The light clock "thought experiment" only poses a time-dilation problem if we assume that light does behave differently when its source is moving. That is to say, it moves with its source. So, if the light clock works, it undermines the Postulate that the speed of light is independent of the motion of its source.

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