The Superluminal Scissors
The point at which the blades bend propagates down the blade at some speed less than the speed of light. On the near side of this point, the scissors are closed. On the far side of this point, the scissors remain open. You have, in fact, sent a kind of wave down the scissors, carrying the information that the scissors have been closed. But this wave does not travel faster than the speed of light. It will take at least one year for the tips of the blades, at the far end of the scissors, to feel any force whatsoever, and, ultimately, to come together to completely close the scissors.
As a practical matter, this theoretical upper limit to the rigidity of the metal in the scissors is far higher than the rigidity of any real material, so it would, in practice, take much much longer to close a real pair of metal scissors with blades as long as these.
One can analyze this problem microscopically as well. The electromagnetic force which binds the atoms of the scissors together propagates at the speeds of light. So if you displace some set of atoms in the scissor (such as the entire handles), the force will not propagate down the scissor instantaneously, This means that a scissor this big must cease to act as a rigid body. You can move parts of it without other parts moving at the same time. It takes some finite time for the changing forces on the scissor to propagate from atom to atom, letting the far tip of the blades "know" that the scissors have been closed.
Think about the simpler case of two rulers pinned together at an edge point at the ends. Slam the two rulers together and the contact point will move infinitely fast to the far end of the rulers at the instant they touch. So long as the rulers are short enough that contact does not happen until the signal propagates to the far ends of the rulers, the rulers will indeed be straight when they meet. Only if the rulers are too long will they be bent like our very long scissors, above, when they touch. The contact point can move faster than the speed of light, but the energy (or signal) of the closing force can not.
An analogy, equivalent in terms of information content, is, say, a line of strobe lights. You want to light them up one at a time, so that the `bright' spot travels faster than light. To do so, you can send a luminal signal down the line, telling each strobe light to wait a little while before flashing. If you decrease the wait time with each successive strobe light, the apparent bright spot will travel faster than light, since the strobes on the end didn't wait as long after getting the go-ahead, as did the ones at the beginning. But the bright spot can't pass the original signal, because then the strobe lights wouldn't know to flash.
Return to the Library