Thursday, February 20, 2014

Arguing that photons are massless

Physics professor Brian Greene was on Comedy Channel Colbert Nation plugging, and spent most of the time arguing that light has energy, but not mass. Even Colbert knew that E=mc2, so he was confused. So were most viewers, I am sure. Greene was there to explain science, and he did a lousy job.

Textbook terminology has changed over the decades on this point. Here is how Wikipedia explains mass in special relativity:
A so-called massless particle (such as a photon, or a theoretical graviton) moves at the speed of light in every frame of reference. In this case there is no transformation that will bring the particle to rest. The total energy of such particles becomes smaller and smaller in frames which move faster and faster in the same direction. As such, they have no rest mass, because they can never be measured in a frame where they are at rest. This property of having no rest mass is what causes these particles to be termed "massless." However, even massless particles have a relativistic mass, which varies with their observed energy in various frames of reference,
John Baez explains:
Photons are traditionally said to be massless. This is a figure of speech that physicists use to describe something about how a photon's particle-like properties are described by the language of special relativity.
A figure of speech? Yes, you can say that photons have mass, or do not have mass, as long as you define your terms carefully.

Here is a modern opinion:
For many years it was conventional to enter the discussion of dynamics through derivation of the relativistic mass, that is the mass–velocity relation, and this is probably still the dominant mode in textbooks. More recently, however, it has been increasingly recognized that relativistic mass is a troublesome and dubious concept.
Obviously Greene was concerned that he might be embarrassed before his colleagues using some antiquated terminology.

It would have been better to say:
Yes, photons have mass and momentum. Some physicists like to say that the rest mass is zero, but the photon is never at rest anyway.
Greene is teaching two new courses on "Einstein's special theory of relativity". It is funny that he always has to say that it is Einstein's theory. Everything he mentions was discovered by someone else, not Einstein.

1 comment:

  1. Consider the solar sail. Hmm. Mass is being moved by massless particles...I don't think so. Consider your eyeball. Rods and cones are interacting with massless particles? How? If you have no mass, nothing is stopping you, whatever a 'you' could possibly be without mass, which is zero. If it has energy, it has mass, or you don't have your E=mc^2. To use your counterfactual, If light stopped it wouldn't have mass. Since this does not appear to happen, yes, light has mass. I would hazard the photon has mass when it does not move as well, except that it would not be detected as light since it would be behaving differently. Why not speculate a little here, what if light is actually just a part of something else (or the tip of an ice berg) like an actual physical charge field? Why bother with virtual photons and various malarkey when you could have the real thing? When your photon isn't acting like light, it's acting like charge and moving differently. This idea might also explain a few problems like where all the missing mass of the universe is...Maybe Dark Matter is nothing but (light!!) the charge field? Just a thought.
    If anyone is going to make headway with the problem, they are going to have to start realizing that science knows precious little of what light actually is, and how it functions. Everyone is so enamored with predicting the qualities of mathematically imagined objects, they aren't paying attention to the fact they don't know very much about how the real ones operate.