Midiendo la velocidad de la luz: el contexto histórico

David Barrado y Navascués

Mostrabamos el otro día un experimento casero  para medir la velocidad de la luz, utilizando un microondas. Hagamos un repaso de la historia de esta magnitud, importantísima para la Física moderna.

Parece ser que el primero en sugerir un método fue  Isaac Beeckman (1629), pocos años antes que Galileo, quien no pudo medir la velocidad, pero indicó que si la transmisión no es instantanea, su velocidad es tan alta como para impedir su determinación (al menos en ese momento, con la tecnología disponible). El experimento ideado por Galileo fue intentado años después en Florencia, sin éxito.

Fue Roemer, mediante el uso de los eclipses de los satelites de Jupiter, quien pudo extraer el primer valor. Fue  en 1675, con la cantidad de 198,500 km/s, un 30% inferior al valor real (299,793 km/s). Se sirvió del hecho de que la distancia Tierra-Júpiter depende de la posición relativa de ambos al orbitar en torno al baricentro del Sistema Solar (mínima en oposición), por lo que los presentan retrasos respecto al tiempo previsto si la velocidad fuera infinita (si la información se tranmitiera de manera instantanea). Ello requiere el conocimiento del radio de la órbita de la Tierra.  Christiaan Huygens utilizaría una de las primeras estimaciones precisas para derivar una velocidad de unos 220,000 km/s.

Nuevos metodos, más precisos, fueron ideados con posterioridad por  Newton, Fizeau, Foucault y Michelson, los últimos en el siglo XIX.

Un efecto claro de la velocidad finita de la luz es el fenómeno conocido como aberración de la luz , el cambio estacional de las posiciones de las estrellas (y los demas astros) que aparece como consecuencia de la combinación de la velocidad de la luz que emiten y la del receptor situado en la Tierra, que se desplaza alrededor del Sol. Es análogo a la oblicuidad de la lluvia cuando corremos. Pero de ello ya hablaré otro día.

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