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Galaxy NGC4414 from HST Astronomy 162:
Introduction to Stars, Galaxies, & the Universe
Prof. Richard Pogge, MTWThF 9:30

Lecture 31: A Tale of Two World Views:
Special Relativity

Readings: Chapter 24, section 24-1
"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."
Albert Einstein (1952)

"It will seem difficult at first, but everything is difficult at first."
Miyamoto Musashi [Book of Five Rings 1645]

Key Ideas

Central Postulates of Relativity:
The laws of physics are the same for all uniformly moving observers.
The speed of light is the same for all observers.

Different observers measure different times, lengths, and masses.
Only spacetime is observer independent.

Newton's Universe

In Newton's view:

The result was a set of laws formulated from the perspective of an absolute "God's Eye View" of the Universe.

Einstein's Challenge

1905: Albert Einstein challenged Newton:

Result is an irreducible relativity of our physical perspective.

Seeing the World

All information about the Universe is carried by light.

Speed of Light: c = 300,000 km/sec

Compared to everyday scales:

Our everyday experience of the world is with phenomena at speeds much slower than the speed of light.

1st Postulate of Relativity

The laws of physics are the same for all uniformly moving observers.

"Uniformly" = "with a constant velocity"


2nd Postulate of Relativity

The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the source.


This has been experimentally verified in all cases.

Essential Relativity

Two observers moving relative to each other experience the world differently:

The key is the role of light.

The Relativity of Time: A Thought Experiment

Consider a simple photon clock:

photon clock

Relativity with Dick & Jane

Dick & Jane fly past each other in rockets:

What do they see?

Jane's clock as seen by Jane:
Jane's Photon clock as seen by Jane

Jane's clock as seen by Dick:
Jane's Photon clock as seen by Dick

He Said, She Said...

Jane's Observations:

Dick's Observations:

Relative Time

Our result is true for all clocks.

Conclusion: There is no absolute time.

This has been verified experimentally using atomic clocks on airplanes and satellites.

Consequences of Relativity

Observers moving relative to each other:

Other Consequences:


Newton's View:

Einstein's View:

Light the Unifier

Because all information is carried by light at a finite speed, to satisfy the requirements of the basic postulates of Special Relativity:

We must unify otherwise disparate ideas:

What about Gravity?

Special Relativity is restricted to uniformly moving (unaccelerated) observers.

But, objects are accelerated by gravity. (Newton: "They feel a gravitational force.")

Einstein took 8 years to generalize relativity.

This effort was to lead to the formulation of a completely new theory of gravity.

A Final Thought:

from Spacetime Physics, p. 5, by Edwin Taylor & John Archibald Wheeler, W.H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco, 1966 edition.
"The principles of special relativity are remarkably simple. They are very much simpler than the axioms of Euclid or the principles of operating an automobile. Yet both Euclid and the automobile have been mastered - perhaps with insufficient surprize - by generations of ordinary people. Some of the best minds of the twentieth century struggled with the concepts of relativity, not because nature is obscure, but simply because man finds it difficult to outgrow established ways of looking at nature. For us the battle has already been won. The concepts of relativity can now be expressed simply enough to make it easy to think correctly - thus "making the bad difficult and the good easy."[*] The problem of understanding relativity is no longer one of learning but one of intuition - a practiced way of seeing. When seen with this intuition, a remarkable number of otherwise incomprehensible experimental results are revealed to be perfectly natural."

[*] Quote is from Einstein, in a similar connection, in a letter to the architect Le Corbusier.

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Updated: 2006 February 18
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.