Einstein relativity




Einstein relativity


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Einstein relativity


VCE Physics Unit 3: Relativity DS – talk notes        Physics Conference 6 Feb 2004 - Keith Burrows

Last updated 7 Feb after the Physics Conference – a few more resources have been added to those in the handout at the conference.


Why Relativity?


Einstein’s relativity is a fascinating aspect of physics, but perhaps the best reason for teaching it at year 12 is that it is an excellent way to give our students a feel for the real nature of the subject. Most of the great advances in physics (or ‘natural philosophy’) have occurred because a ‘genius’ was prepared to put forward a radical new idea: Aristotle – the world can be understood by careful observation, thought and reason. Copernicus – the Earth moves around the Sun. Galileo – there is nothing special about zero velocity. Newton – too many to list! Faraday – electricity and magnetism are linked. Maxwell – light is an electromagnetic wave. These are but a tiny sample of the natural philosophers who have advanced our understanding by being prepared to look at phenomena in a new way. The fact that we now take these discoveries for granted is testimony to their importance, but at the time they were first put forward, all of them were totally radical ideas.

Although there are many, many examples of great leaps in our understanding of the world in the twentieth century, the outstanding example is Einstein’s relativity. Forever, it had been assumed that time and space were ‘straight’, absolute and independent of each other. It is to Newton’s great credit that he realised that this was, in fact, an assumption we make. That it was even a question was something that never occurred to most people. Einstein’s huge leap of imagination was to suggest that not only were time and space not ‘absolute, true, immovable’ (Newton’s words), but that motion through time and motion through space were interrelated.


To put it in a nutshell, Einstein said that we are always travelling through ‘spacetime’ at a constant rate, but we can choose to have more of one and less of the other. We normally travel steadily through time (even if it often seems to be an increasing rate!) but through very little space (on the grand scale of things that is). However, if we could travel at near the speed of light, our travel through space would be at the expense of our travel through time. In fact, light itself travels entirely through space and not at all through time – just the reverse of what we normally seem to do! But we are getting ahead of ourselves.


The purpose of this DS

Einstein’s relativity was (and still is) such a radical idea that it is very hard to really appreciate its true nature. It is important for us to realise that the purpose of this Detailed Study is not to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of relativity – that would be impossible. Rather, it is to give them a feeling for its connection to the rest of the physics they study, and a glimpse of where their physics is headed. Even more important, however, is the insight that it gives us, and hopefully our students, into the nature and processes of physics. Too often physics is seen simply as a collection of equations that are used to solve various problems, or maybe as the driving force behind new technology. Important as these are however, they are not ‘real physics’. I suggest that real physics is more a process than an outcome – and that this process is wonderfully illustrated by the story of relativity (which actually starts with Galileo).


Is the process of physics more important than its outcomes? This could be debated I guess, but I would suggest that it is far more important! Why? Because in the long run it is not the facts, but the ‘feel’ of physics that will be important to the students. There are two reasons:

The ‘facts’ can always be looked up later. It is an understanding of where these facts have come from, how reliable they may be, and how they relate to the whole picture that makes the difference between a physicist and someone who just ‘knows’ a lot. “Imagination is more important than knowledge” said Einstein. We have no idea where our students will end up and what parts of the story of physics will be important to them. But what will be important is their ability to discern relevant from irrelevant information, to see the difference between reliable sources of knowledge and unreliable ones, and to ask meaningful questions. This is what a ‘feel’ for physics gives us. This is Einstein’s ‘imagination’.


The second reason is that if there is anything that this world needs now (apart from love!) it is a reasoned, thoughtful, and questioning approach to the social, political and environmental challenges we face. The greatest dangers in all these areas are from those who ‘know’ they have all the right answers. And I am not just referring to religious fanatics, but to economic and political fundamentalists as well – not to mention a whole host of other groups who can’t see beyond their own immediate dogmas. The whole story of physics teaches us to keep asking questions, to use our reason and our thinking to solve problems, and to look beyond the immediately obvious.


Do we, as physics teachers, underestimate the importance of what we are teaching? More than anything else, our modern western world has been shaped by both the consequences and the philosophy of the ‘enlightenment’, a movement which cast aside authority and dogma for reason and experiment. This was the time of the birth of classical physics. The technological consequences are very obvious, but perhaps we don’t always consider some of the philosophical consequences.

At the end of the nineteenth century physicists thought they had just about tied it all up – the first version of the ‘Theory of Everything’. Their atomic picture of matter and the laws of mechanics and electromagnetism seemed to be able to explain just about everything. (There were of course a few puzzles such as the constant speed and the nature of light, but most people thought a solution was just around the corner.) This sense of certainty, indeed a sense of power, seemed to translate into the mechanistic, materialistic philosophy that drove the twentieth century. Some would say that ‘economic rationalism’ is its latest incarnation.

Einstein’s papers of 1905 brought that attempt at a theory of everything crashing down. Space, time and light were not at all the simple concepts they appeared to be in classical physics. Matter itself became ‘wavy’ and ‘uncertain’ not long after. Suddenly the world became much more complex – we could say richer and more exciting – than the simplistic pictures of the nineteenth century. Now it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the simplistic social and economic pictures of the end of the twentieth century are due for a shakeup! Just as classical physics heavily influenced the worldviews of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, perhaps twentieth century physics will have a similar influence on the way we think in the twenty-first century. I suggest that we should hope it does. And that’s why I am looking forward to relativity becoming part of our curriculum.


"When the ideas involved in relativity have become familiar, as they will do when they are taught in schools, certain changes in our habits of thought are likely to result, and to have great importance in the long run."
Bertrand Russell in ABC of Relativity


Who is it for?

I hope that it will be clear from the preceding that I believe this study should be aimed at all of our students (in fact I would say all year 12 students!) not just those intending to go on to further physics. Indeed I suggest that the main purpose of this study at VCE level is to give those who will not have the benefit of tertiary physics that ‘feel’ for real physics discussed earlier. If only more journalists, teachers, politicians, philosophers – not to mention parents and hairdressers – could experience a way of thinking that is open to new ideas, actively examines the validity of its own concepts, has no place for dogma, constantly searches for ‘truth’, and knows that it does not have the complete picture!


So where do we start?

While Einstein’s ideas were radical, they were based on the great discoveries of the physicists who came before. In particular he did not want to give up the basic discoveries of Galileo and Newton, as well as those of Maxwell (who could be called the ‘Newton’ of electromagnetism). In presenting this study to students I believe that it is important that they see it as a progression from the work of previous physicists, not as something that ‘overturned’ all our previous ideas. It was actually Newton who said “if I have seen further than others it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants”, but I am sure Einstein would have agreed! And Einstein’s giants certainly included Galileo, Newton and Maxwell. (See Einstein’s Heros by Robyn Arianrhod.)

What follows is an outline of one approach to teaching relativity. The underlying assumption is that students will best be able to follow the broad historical development of the ideas. This helps them to see why as well as how relativity was developed and enables them to relate it to their own search for understanding. In introducing the theory itself, however, we need to take a simpler approach that looks at the implications of the two postulates in a simple situation, and develops an overview of the theory from there. Please realise that this paper is only meant as a notes summary for the conference presentation and cannot hope to provide a complete treatment. I have developed this approach more fully in Heinemann Physics 12 (2nd ed.).


1. Two principles Einstein did NOT want to give up


Galileo's principle of inertia implies that there is nothing special about a velocity of zero, that all velocity measurements must be measured relative to some other object or ‘frame of reference’ (often just called a ‘frame’). A zero velocity in one frame may be a very high velocity in another.
Newton’s laws of motion cannot determine an absolute velocity. A force causes a change in velocity, not a particular velocity. All velocities are relative – this is often called the Galilean/Newtonian ‘Principle of Relativity’.
• The speed of light was found to be fast but finite (c = 300 million km/sec). It was also found to be a wave – but there was the question of what was it that was waving, and in what medium did it travel?
Maxwell's electromagnetic equations suggested the possibility of electromagnetic waves which would propagate at a speed fixed by the electric and magnetic force constants. This speed turned out to be the speed of light, c, and so it appeared that light may be an electromagnetic wave. A problem however, was that the speed did not seem to make allowances for the motion of the observer – something that seemed quite at odds with the principle of relativity!
• The equations were also interpreted to suggest that an absolute frame of reference (the aether) existed in which light always travelled at c = 3.00 H 108 m/s – something also very much at odds with the principle of relativity which said there should be no absolute motion. If there was an absolute frame we should be able to detect, for example, the Earth’s motion through it.
• However, experiments, such as Michelson and Morley's, failed to detect any motion of the Earth through the aether as it orbited the Sun. Various explanations were offered, but the only one that seemed to make any sense was from H.A.Lorentz who suggested that moving objects physically contract, just a little, in the direction of travel – just enough to compensate for the relative motion. However, there was no real basis for this idea. His equations, the ‘Lorentz contraction’ were simply introduced as a way of explaining a puzzling observation.
Einstein felt that, despite the apparent contradiction, both the principle of relativity, as well as Maxwell’s equations and their implications for the speed of light, were so elegant they just ‘had to be true’.


2. Einstein's crazy idea


• Einstein wondered what it would be like to ‘ride a beam of light’. But if we could travel at the same speed we would see the light waves stationary, and that would imply stationary electromagnetic fields which varied with position – something never seen and certainly against Maxwell’s laws. It therefore seemed that it should not be possible to reach the speed of light! It also hinted at the constancy of the speed of light for all observers.
• He also decided that Galileo's principle of relativity (as extended by Newton) was so elegant it simply had to be true. In brief, this implies that space itself has no ‘centre’ or ‘edges’ or any other way of fixing a frame of reference - and therefore no possibility of an absolute velocity.
• Einstein was also convinced that Maxwell's electromagnetic equations, and their predictions were sound. In order to keep both the principle of relativity and Maxwell’s equations he put forward two postulates and looked at the consequences of accepting them. His two postulates of 'special relativity' were (in effect):

 I. No law of physics can identify a state of absolute rest.
II. The speed of light is the same to all observers.

• If we think about these, the second seems to be inconsistent with the first. If there is no absolute frame, all velocities should be relative and hence the speed of light should depend on the observer. Einstein realised that accepting both of them implied that there was something wrong with our normal ideas of space and time. He said that space and time were not absolute but related (that is ‘relative’) in a four dimensional universe of ‘spacetime’. (It is notable that Newton had realised we normally accept the existence absolute time and space, but that there was no fundamental justification for this.)
• If the speed of light is constant for all observers, it turns out that an inevitable consequence is that two events which are simultaneous in one frame of reference are not necessarily simultaneous in another – as illustrated by the ‘flashlight in the train’ example – the flash from the centre reaches the ends at the same time for those inside but different times for outside observers as the train has moved toward the rear directed pulse but away from the forward directed pulse. (Note that this is not a result of the time taken to get from the ends to the observer – that has to be taken into account.)
• If two events can be simultaneous in one frame but at different times in another, this implies that time as measured from different frames of reference might not be the same. It therefore appears that time and space are interrelated in a four dimensional (one time and three space) universe of spacetime.


3. Time is not as it seems: Time Dilation


In order to find a quantitative relationship between the time measured in one frame of reference and that measured in another we can look more closely at the flashes in the train:
• The length of half the train is l, its speed v and the speed of light c. The time for the light pulse to reflect from the ends and back to the centre is then 2l/c (for the observers inside).
• The observer outside sees things differently – unlike the situation with balls or sound! The light has a velocity of c (not c + v) and this time we find that the time for the light pulse to reflect from the ends and return to the centre is 2l/c x 1/(1 – v²/c²). That is, different by the factor 1/(1 – v²/c²), which we call g². But note carefully that this assumes that we can cancel the l’s!

To be a little more careful about the change in time we need to look carefully at what we mean by a ‘clock’. The simplest clock to imagine (but not to build!) is the ‘light clock’ in which we count the rate at which pulses of light bounce back and forth. The advantage of the light clock is that being based on light we know it will take any relativistic effects into account. Picture a light clock in a space ship, oriented so the light travels perpendicular to the motion of the ship.
• The pulses in a light clock in a moving frame of reference have to travel further when observed from a stationary frame. But remember that the light still travels at the same speed and so it will take longer for each pulse – so this effectively means that time appears to have slowed in the moving frame (as observed from the stationary one):

The length of the clock is d, and the speed of the ship v, so looking at the zig-zag path of light, and assuming that light always travels at c, we relate the distance of each ‘zig’ to the speed of light and the apparent time for this zig (TA in the moving frame, TC in the stationary frame):
From within the moving frame, A: d = cTA
From the stationary frame, C, the ship moves a distance vTc in one zig and the light travels the hypotenuse, cTc of a Pythagorean triangle where:  d² = c²Tc² – v²Tc²
Putting these together (with a bit of algebra) we get:  Tc/TA = g  where g = 1/√(1 – v²/c²), the Lorentz factor.

• This is Einstein’s famous time dilation equation; t = gto , which relates the time, t, in a moving frame to the same interval to in the observer’s frame. Needless to say, it has been found to apply to a very high degree of accuracy whenever we observe time in a moving frame of reference. However, note that even at 10% of c the Lorentz factor only makes about 0.5% difference – but with extremely accurate clocks the difference is measurable even for commercial flights around the Earth.
• Of course we can reverse the process and look at the situation from the space ship observer’s point of view in which case s/he sees the ‘stationary’ observer’s time slow down. This may seem to be contradictory, but in fact is not because there is no ‘real’ time for comparison. All time is relative!
• Now if one observer decides to go and meet the other to see who ‘really’ slowed down, what will we find? In order to do this one of them will need to accelerate (slow down, turn around and speed up again). This makes the situation non-symmetric and this is why we don’t have a paradox. In fact, the one who accelerated turns out to have experienced less time. (We come to the ‘twins paradox’ shortly.)


4. If time is strange, what about space?


• In the earlier train result that the outside observer (Tc) saw the time for flashes to return to the centre of the carriage as Tc = TAg² we cancelled the l’s in the two equations. The ‘light clock’ (and Einstein’s postulates) tells us that the time should be dilated by g rather than g². The extra g factor results from the fact that the length of the train was dilated by g in the outside frame of reference and thus the length l of the train was actually shorter as measured by the outside observer.
• So the special theory of relativity says that time and space are interdependent. Motion shortens space in the direction of travel but not at right angles to it. Thus a moving object will appear shorter, or appear to travel less distance, by the factor g. Einstein's length contraction equation is therefore: l = lo/g where lo is the so called proper distance, just as to is referred to as the proper time, that measured by an observer in the same frame of reference as the two events.
• Einstein said that we live in a four dimensional world of spacetime in which space and time are interdependent. Our motion through space comes at the expense of motion through time.
• It may seem all very theoretical – after all time in the moving frame only seems to slow down to an outside observer, not those in the frame. However, Einstein’s famous so called ‘twins paradox’ illustrates the point that it is a practical, and testable, theory:

Imagine that one of a pair of twins takes off on a long space journey, say to Vega, 25 light years away. If we measure the speed of the spacecraft at 99.5% of c (g = 10) it will take just over 25 years as measured from Earth. But this same time interval as measured in the spacecraft will be only 2.5 years (ie., 25/g). Remember that the traveller will see the galaxy flashing by at 0.995c and hence it will be contracted by a factor of 10. Now imagine shat our traveller stops, doesn’t like the Vegans, so turns around and comes straight back – a real traveller would have been totally flattened by the acceleration, but this is a ‘Gedanken’ traveller! For the traveller, it takes another 2.5 years to get home, but when he arrives home he finds his twin 50 years older compared to his own 5 years.

In fact this is no ‘paradox’. There is nothing self-contradictory about it, it is just well outside our normal experience! While we can’t do this sort of experiment, we can do similar things with highly accurate clocks in orbits around the Earth. Einstein’s predictions are always found to be as precise as can be measured. Weird maybe, but paradox? No.


5. Faster than light? Momentum, Energy and E = mc²


• Because the Lorentz factor, g, approaches infinity at the speed of light, the length of a moving object approaches zero and time comes to a standstill as the speed approaches c.
• As well, relativistic momentum also includes g and hence as more impulse is added, the momentum increases but most of the increase is reflected in the g rather than in the speed. It is as though the mass seems to increase toward infinity as the speed gets closer to c. So what happens at c? Einstein said that these things, along with the electromagnetic nature of light, suggested that the velocity of light was, in fact, a natural speed limit. No mass could ever be accelerated right up to c. Only massless light photons could travel at c. In fact, that is the only velocity they can travel at. When they are absorbed they vanish, leaving only their energy and momentum.
• Einstein was able to show that the kinetic energy of an object was given by the rather odd expression:
Ek = (g – 1)moc² which at normal velocities reduces, surprisingly enough, to the familiar Ek = ½mv² . However, another way of looking at this expression is:  gmoc² = Ek + moc².  Einstein interpreted this as the ‘total energy’ of the body, the moc² being what he called the ‘mass energy’. This mass energy was somehow associated with the mass of an object.
• This we now refer to as ‘mass-energy equivalence’, and we all know that the realisation that mass was a huge store of energy eventually lead to the release of some of this mass-energy in the nuclear bomb and in power reactors.
• The commonly used expression E = mc² (which is more properly written Etot = gmoc²) actually refers to the total energy, which includes the kinetic energy – but of course that is a very minor part of the total.
• In any process that releases energy, the mass associated with that energy is also released. It is not that mass is ‘converted’ to energy, it is more that energy has mass, and that mass is ‘lost’ with the energy released.
• A vast amount of experimental evidence now supports Einstein's special theory of relativity.
• Magnetism can only be understood in relativistic terms. (Otherwise why would two parallel currents attract when viewed from the frame which is travelling at the same speeds as the currents?!) See VicPhysics for a fuller explanation of this - soon. Although this is not in our syllabus, it is a fascinating illustration that relativity doesn’t only apply to high speed rocket ships, but also to slow moving electrons.

See www.vicphysics.org for a list of resources which will expand as we find them and people contribute ideas!
There are lots of relativity www sites, but many are not worth the time. Suggestions of good ones welcome!

The present content of the RelativityResourcesKBFe4.doc is given below:

- Heinemann Physics 12, (2nd ed.), Chapman et. al.
- Jacaranda Physics 2, (2nd ed.), Lofts et. al.
- Arianrhod, Robyn; Einstein’s Heros, QUP 2003 (Good background, particularly on Maxwell.)
- Gardner, Martin; Relativity Simply Explained, Dover, NY 1997 (One of the best ‘popular’ relativity books.)
- Scheider, Walter; Maxwell's Conundrum - A serious but not ponderous book about Relativity, Cavendish Press, Ann Arbor 2000 from: www.cavendishscience.org It is as its subtitle says - good. Explains the ‘look-back’ effects very well.
- Hey and Walter 1997 Einstein’s Mirror Cambridge University Press (Good looking and good physics)
- Davies, Paul and Gribbin, John; The Matter Myth,  Viking 1991
- Russell, Bertrand; ABC of Relativity Unwin, London 1985. A must for philosopher/physicists.
- Stachel, John; Einstein's Miraculous Year  Princeton University Press 1998 (Einstein’s original papers translated and with comment.)

Prof. David Jamieson’s Relativity presentation from November 2003 (including the simultaneity demo which I used) is available (in reduced form) on his website at http://www.ph.unimelb.edu.au/~dnj/jl/jl.htm A number of his other interesting presentations are available as well.
A site that looks good is: http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/physoc/physics_faq/relativity.html
The Walter Fendt applet on time dilation is not bad: www.walter-fendt.de/ph14e/  (He has a number of good applets on various aspects of physics.)
The AIP history of physics site may also be of interest: www.aip.org/history/einstein/
There are lots of other web sites that promise much about relativity, but most that I have looked at are not much use. Please let me know if you find a good one! (Or put your own list on VicPhysics!)




Source : http://www.vicphysics.org/documents/teachers/EinsteinsRelativityKBFe4.doc

Web site link: http://www.vicphysics.org/

Author : Keith Burrows


Einstein relativity



Einstein relativity


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