I am just reading the volume titled Waves in my favorite series of ancient textbooks on Theoretical Physics by German physics professor Wilhelm Macke. I tried to resist the urge to write about seemingly random fields of physics, and probably weird ways of presenting them – but I can’t resist any longer.
There are different ways to introduce special relativity. Typically, the Michelson-Morely experiment is presented first, as our last attempt in a futile quest to determine to absolute speed in relation to “ether”. In order to explain these results we have to accept the fact that the speed of light is the same in any inertial frame. This is weird and non-intuitive: We probably can’t help but compare a ray of light to a bunch of bullets or a fast train – whose velocity relative to us does change with our velocity. We can outrun a train but we can’t outrun light.
Yet, not accepting it would lead to even more weird consequences: After all, the theory of electromagnetism had always been relativistically invariant. The speed of light shows up as a constant in the related equations which explain perfectly how waves of light behaves.
I think the most straight-forward way to introduce special relativity is to start from its core ideas (only) – the constant speed of light and the equivalence of frames of reference. This is the simplicity and beauty of symmetry. No need to start with trains and lightning bolts, as Matthew Rave explained so well. For the more visually inclined there is an ingenious and nearly purely graphical way, called k-calculus (that is however seldom taught AFAIK – I had stumbled upon it once in a German book on relativity).
From the first principles all the weirdness of length contraction and time dilation follows naturally.
But is there a way to understand it a bit better though?
Macke also starts from the Michelson-Morely experiment – and he adds the fact that it can be “explained” by Lorentz’ contraction hypothesis: Allowing for direction-dependent velocities – as in “ether theory” – but adding the odd fact that rulers contract in the direction of the unobservable absolution motion makes the differences the rays of light traverse go away. It also “explains” time dilatation if you consider your typical light clock and factor in the contraction of lengths:
However, length contraction could be sort of justified by tracing it back to the electromagnetic underpinnings of stuff we use in the lab. And it is the theory of electromagnetism where the weird constant speed of light sneaks in.
Contraction can be visualized by stating that like rulers and clocks are finally made from atoms, ions or molecules, whose positions are determined by electromagnetic forces. The perfect sphere of the electrostatic potential around a point charge would be turned into an ellipsoid if the charge starts moving – hence the contraction. You could hypothesize that only “electromagnetic stuff” might be subject to contraction and there might be “mechanical stuff” that would allow for measuring true time and spatial dimensions.
Thus the new weird equations about contracting rulers and slowing time are introduced as statements about electromagnetic stuff only. We use them to calculate back and forth between lengths and times displayed on clocks that suffer from the shortcomings of electromagnetic matter. The true values for x,y,z,t are still there, but finally inaccessible as any matter is electromagnetic.
Yes, this explanation is messy as you mix underlying – but not accessible – direction-dependent velocities with the contraction postulate added on top. This approach misses the underlying simplicity of the symmetry in nature. It is a historical approach, probably trying to do justice to the mechanical thought experiments involving trains and clocks that Einstein had also used (and that could be traced back to his childhood spent basically in the electrical engineering company run by his father and uncle, according to this biography).
What I found fascinating though is that you get consistent equations assuming the following:
- There are true co-ordinates we can never measure; for those Galileian Transformations remain valid, that is: Time is the same in all inertial frames and distances just differ by time times the speed of the frame of reference.
- There are “apparent” or “electromagnetic” co-ordinates that follow Lorentz Transformations – of which length contraction and time dilations are consequences.
To make these sets of transformations consistent you have to take into account that you cannot synchronize clocks in different locations if you don’t know the true velocity of the frame of reference. Synchronization is done by placing an emitter of light right in the middle of the two clocks to be synchronized, sending signals to both clocks. This is correct only if the emitter is at rest with respect to both clocks. But we cannot determine when it is at rest because we never know the true velocity.
What you can do is to assume that one frame of reference is absolutely at rest, thus implying that (true) time is independent of spatial dimensions, and the other frame of reference moving in relation to it suffers from the problem of clock synchronization – thus in this frame true time depends on the spatial co-ordinates used in that frame.
The final result is the same when you eliminate the so-called true co-ordinates from the equations.
I don’t claim its the best way to explain special relativity – I just found it interesting, as it tries to take the just hypothetical nature of 4D spacetime as far as possible while giving results in line with experiments.
And now explaining the really important stuff – and another historical detour in its own right
Yes, I changed the layout. My old theme, Garland, had been deprecated by wordpress.com. I am nostalgic – here is a screenshot – courtesy to visitors who will read this in 200 years.
I had checked it with an iPhone simulator – and it wasn’t simply too big or just “not responsive”, the top menu bar boundaries of divs looked scrambled. Thus I decided the days of Garland the three-column layout are over.
Now you can read my 2.000 words posts on your mobile devices – something I guess everybody has eagerly anticipated.
And I have just moved another nearly 1.000 words of meta-philosophizing on the value of learning such stuff (theory of relativity, not WordPress) from this post to another draft.