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Speed Of Light

Speed Of Light

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Published by Kainshk Gupta
Speed Of Light

Source : Donald B. Sullivan.
Speed Of Light

Source : Donald B. Sullivan.

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Published by: Kainshk Gupta on Sep 23, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Speed of Light From Direct Frequency and Wavelength Measurements
The National Bureau of Standards has had a longhistory of interest in the speed of light, and no doubt thisinterest contributed to the measurement described here[1]. As early as 1907, Rosa and Dorsey [2] determinedthe speed of light from the ratio of the capacitance of acondenser as measured in electrostatic and electro-magnetic units. Over the ensuing years NBS developedstill other methods to improve upon the accuracy of thisimportant physical constant.By the late 1960s, lasers stabilized in frequencyto atomic and molecular resonances were becomingreliable research tools. These could be viewed as provid-ing stable reference for either optical frequency or wave-length. This duality of frequency and length producedthe obvious suggestion that a simultaneous measure-ment of frequency and length for the same laser transi-tion would yield a very good measurement of thespeed of light. In fact, a 1958 measurement of thespeed of light by Froome [3] was done by determiningthe frequency and wavelength of a microwave sourceat 72 GHz. The frequency measurement was fairlystraightforward, since frequency in the microwave andlower ranges can be readily measured with greataccuracy. The speed-of-light measurement was limitedprimarily by the difficulty in measuring the verylong wavelength (about 0.4 cm) of the 72 GHz radiation.Clearly, a better measurement would result if higherfrequencies could be employed, where wavelengthscould be more accurately measured. The measurementtechnology of that era was not up to the task. The wave-length of visible radiation could be measured fairly well,but no accurate methods for measuring visible frequen-cies were available. Whereas frequency could bemeasured quite well in the microwave to milli-meter-wave region, wavelength measurements wereproblematic.The measurement of the speed of light by the Bouldergroup involved the development of a new method. Theapproach taken was to synthesize signals at progres-sively higher and higher frequency using harmonic-generation-and-mixing (heterodyne) methods and tolock the frequency of a nearby oscillator or laser to thefrequency of this synthesized signal [4]. Photodiodes,as well as metal-insulator-metal diodes, fabricated byadjusting a finely tipped tungsten wire against anaturally oxidized nickel plate, were used for harmonicgeneration and mixing. With this approach, a frequency-synthesis chain was constructed linking the microwaveoutput of the cesium frequency standard to the opticalregion, so that the group could directly measure thefrequency of a helium-neon laser stabilized against the3.39
m transition of methane. When the measurementswere completed, the uncertainty limitation was found tobe the asymmetry of the krypton line on which thedefinition of the meter was then based. The experimentthus showed that the realization of the meter could besubstantially improved through redefinition.This careful measurement resulted in a reduction of the uncertainty of the speed of light by a factor of nearly100. The methods developed at NIST were replicated ina number of other laboratories, and the experimentswere repeated and improved to the point where it wasgenerally agreed that this technology could form thebasis for a new definition of the meter. An importantremaining task was the accurate measurement of still-higher (visible) frequencies which could then serve asmore practical realizations of the proposed new defini-tion. The Boulder group again took the lead andprovided the first direct measurement of the frequencyof the 633 nm line of the iodine-stabilized helium-neonlaser [4], as well as a measurement of the frequency of the 576 nm line in iodine [5]. These measurements, andsimilar measurements made at other laboratories aroundthe world, were the last ingredients needed to take up theredefinition of the meter.The new definition of the meter, accepted by the 17thConfe´rence Ge´ne´rale des Poids et Mesures in 1983, wasquite simple and elegant: “The metre is the length of thepath traveled by light in vacuum during a time intervalof 1/299 792 458 of a second.” A consequence of thisdefinition is that the speed of light is now a definedconstant, not to be measured again. NBS had playeda key role in pioneering measurement methods thatresulted in this redefinition and in the optical frequencymeasurements that contributed to practical realizationsof the definition. In subsequent years, measurement of other stabilized-laser systems added to the ways inwhich the meter could be realized. This way of definingthe meter has proven to be particularly robust, sinceunlike a definition based on a standard such as thekrypton lamp, length measurement can be continuouslyimproved without resorting to a new definition.191
The measurement methods developed at NBS duringthis period also led to the development of high-resolu-tion spectroscopic methods utilizing tunable frequencysources in the optical region [7,8]. These techniquesproduce results with at least 100 times smaller uncer-tainty than traditional spectroscopy involving wave-length measurement. The lower uncertainty has hadimpact in areas, such as radio astronomy and investiga-tions of the upper atmosphere, where better determina-tions of spectral lines have facilitated studies of impor-tant molecules in space and in the stratosphere. Anothernotable result was the use of the methods to generateextensive tables of accurately measured spectral linesacross the infrared spectrum [9]. These tables have con-tributed significantly to the reliability of laboratoryspectroscopic measurements throughout this spectralregion.It is worth noting that management terminated theNBS work on frequency-synthesis chains shortly aftercompletion of the work that led to the meter redefini-tion. Staff involved in this effort then redirected theirefforts toward other programs. Ken Evenson, RussPetersen, and Joe Wells initiated new work on high-resolution frequency-based spectroscopy using themixing methods developed for the frequency-synthesischain, while Bruce Danielson and Gordon Day eventu-ally became involved in optical-fiber metrology and inother optical communication measurements. John Hallwent on to develop high-performance laser systemswithin the Quantum Physics Division, a joint NIST-JILA enterprise, and Dick Barger left NBS to work atthe University of Colorado. Russ Petersen died suddenlyin 1983, just two months after the redefinition of themeter was made official, and Dick Barger died in 1998.Ken Evenson, Bruce Danielson, and Joe Wells havesince retired from NIST.
Prepared by Donald B. Sullivan.
Fig. 1.
Winners of the Gold Medal from the Department of Commerce for their measurement of the speed-of-light. Shown left to right in frontare Ken Evenson (project leader), Bruce Danielson and Gordon Day and in back left to right are Dick Barger, John Hall, Russ Petersen, andJoe Wells.

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