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Complaining about the educational system is a national sport among professors in the U.S., and I, like my colleagues, am often tempted to imagine a golden age of education in our country's past, or to compare our system unfavorably with foreign ones. Reality intrudes, however, when my immigrant students recount the overemphasis on rote memorization in their native countries, and the philosophy that what the teacher says is always right, even when it's wrong.
Albert Einstein's education in late-nineteenth-century Germany was neither modern nor liberal. He did well in the early grades,1 but in high school and college he began to get in trouble for what today's edspeak calls “critical thinking.”
Indeed, there was much that deserved criticism in the state of physics at that time. There was a subtle contradiction between the theory of light as a wave and Galileo's principle that all motion is relative. As a teenager, Einstein began thinking about this on an intuitive basis, trying to imagine what a light beam would look like if you could ride along beside it on a motorcycle at the speed of light. Today we remember him most of all for his radical and far-reaching solution to this contradiction, his theory of relativity, but in his student years his insights were greeted with derision from his professors. One called him a “lazy dog.” Einstein's distaste for authority was typified by his decision as a teenager to renounce his German citizenship and become a stateless person, based purely on his opposition to the militarism and repressiveness of German society. He spent his most productive scientific years in Switzerland and Berlin, first as a patent clerk but later as a university professor. He was an outspoken pacifist and a stubborn opponent of World War I, shielded from retribution by his eventual acquisition of Swiss citizenship.
As the epochal nature of his work became evident, some liberal Germans began to point to him as a model of the “new German,” but after the Nazi coup d'etat, staged public meetings began, at which Nazi scientists criticized the work of this ethnically Jewish (but spiritually nonconformist) giant of science. When Hitler was appointed chancellor, Einstein was on a stint as a visiting professor at Caltech, and he never returned to the Nazi state. World War II convinced Einstein to soften his strict pacifist stance, and he signed a secret letter to President Roosevelt urging research into the building of a nuclear bomb, a device that could not have been imagined without his theory of relativity. He later wrote, however, that when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, it made him wish he could burn off his own fingers for having signed the letter.
Einstein has become a kind of scientific Santa Claus figure in popular culture, which is presumably why the public is always so titillated by his well-documented career as a skirt-chaser and unfaithful husband. Many are also surprised by his lifelong commitment to socialism. A favorite target of J. Edgar Hoover's paranoia, Einstein had his phone tapped, his garbage searched, and his mail illegally opened. A censored version of his 1800-page FBI file was obtained in 1983 under the Freedom of Information Act, and a more complete version was disclosed recently.2 It includes comments solicited from anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi informants, as well as statements, from sources who turned out to be mental patients, that Einstein had invented a death ray and a robot that could control the human mind. Even today, an FBI web page3 accuses him of working for or belonging to 34 “communist-front” organizations, apparently including the American Crusade Against Lynching. At the height of the McCarthy witch hunt, Einstein bravely denounced McCarthy, and publicly urged its targets to refuse to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Belying his other-worldly and absent-minded image, his political positions seem in retrospect not to have been at all clouded by naivete or the more fuzzy-minded variety of idealism. He worked against racism in the U.S. long before the civil rights movement got under way. In an era when many leftists were only too eager to apologize for Stalinism, he opposed it consistently.
This chapter is specifically about Einstein's theory of relativity, but Einstein also began a second, parallel revolution in physics known as the quantum theory, which stated, among other things, that certain processes in nature are inescapably random. Ironically, Einstein was an outspoken doubter of the new quantum ideas that were built on his foundations, being convinced that “the Old One [God] does not play dice with the universe,” but quantum and relativistic concepts are now thoroughly intertwined in physics.
By the time Einstein was born, it had already been two centuries since physicists had accepted Galileo's principle of inertia. One way of stating this principle is that experiments with material objects don't come out any different due the straight-line, constant-speed motion of the apparatus. For instance, if you toss a ball up in the air while riding in a jet plane, nothing unusual happens; the ball just falls back into your hand. Motion is relative. From your point of view, the jet is standing still while the farms and cities pass by underneath.
The teenage Einstein was suspicious because his professors said light waves obeyed an entirely different set of rules than material objects, and in particular that light did not obey the principle of inertia. They believed that light waves were a vibration of a mysterious substance called the ether, and that the speed of light should be interpreted as a speed relative to this ether. Thus although the cornerstone of the study of matter had for two centuries been the idea that motion is relative, the science of light seemed to contain a concept that a certain frame of reference was in an absolute state of rest with respect to the ether, and was therefore to be preferred over moving frames.
Experiments, however, failed to detect this mysterious ether. Apparently it surrounded everything, and even penetrated inside physical objects; if light was a wave vibrating through the ether, then apparently there was ether inside window glass or the human eye. It was also surprisingly difficult to get a grip on this ether. Light can also travel through a vacuum (as when sunlight comes to the earth through outer space), so ether, it seemed, was immune to vacuum pumps.
Einstein decided that none of this made sense. If the ether was impossible to detect or manipulate, one might as well say it didn't exist at all. If the ether doesn't exist, then what does it mean when our experiments show that light has a certain speed, 3×108 meters per second? What is this speed relative to? Could we, at least in theory, get on the motorcycle of Einstein's teenage daydreams, and travel alongside a beam of light? In this frame of reference, the beam's speed would be zero, but all experiments seemed to show that the speed of light always came out the same, 3×108 m/s. Einstein decided that the speed of light was dictated by the laws of physics, so it must be the same in all frames of reference. This put both light and matter on the same footing: both obeyed laws of physics that were the same in all frames of reference.
The results of experiments don't change different due to the straight-line, constant-speed motion of the apparatus. This includes both light and matter.
This is almost the same as Galileo's principle of inertia, except that we explicitly state that it applies to light as well.
This is hard to swallow. If a dog is running away from me at 5 m/s relative to the sidewalk, and I run after it at 3 m/s, the dog's velocity in my frame of reference is 2 m/s. According to everything we have learned about motion, the dog must have different speeds in the two frames: 5 m/s in the sidewalk's frame and 2 m/s in mine. How, then, can a beam of light have the same speed as seen by someone who is chasing the beam?
In fact the strange constancy of the speed of light had already shown up in the now-famous Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887. Michelson and Morley set up a clever apparatus to measure any difference in the speed of light beams traveling east-west and north-south. The motion of the earth around the sun at 110,000 km/hour (about 0.01% of the speed of light) is to our west during the day. Michelson and Morley believed in the ether hypothesis, so they expected that the speed of light would be a fixed value relative to the ether. As the earth moved through the ether, they thought they would observe an effect on the velocity of light along an east-west line. For instance, if they released a beam of light in a westward direction during the day, they expected that it would move away from them at less than the normal speed because the earth was chasing it through the ether. They were surprised when they found that the expected 0.01% change in the speed of light did not occur.
Although the Michelson-Morley experiment was nearly two decades in the past by the time Einstein published his first paper on relativity in 1905, he probably did not even know of the experiment until after submitting the paper.4 At this time he was still working at the Swiss patent office, and was isolated from the mainstream of physics.
How did Einstein explain this strange refusal of light waves to obey the usual rules of addition and subtraction of velocities due to relative motion? He had the originality and bravery to suggest a radical solution. He decided that space and time must be stretched and compressed as seen by observers in different frames of reference. Since velocity equals distance divided by time, an appropriate distortion of time and space could cause the speed of light to come out the same in a moving frame. This conclusion could have been reached by the physicists of two generations before, but the attitudes about absolute space and time stated by Newton were so strongly ingrained that such a radical approach didn't occur to anyone before Einstein. In fact, George FitzGerald had suggested that the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment could be explained if the earth, and every physical object on its surface, was contracted slightly by the strain of the earth's motion through the ether, and Hendrik Lorentz had worked out the relevant mathematics, but they had not had the crucial insight that this it was space and time themselves that were being distorted, rather than physical objects.5
Consider the situation shown in figure f. Aboard a rocket ship we have a tube with mirrors at the ends. If we let off a flash of light at the bottom of the tube, it will be reflected back and forth between the top and bottom. It can be used as a clock; by counting the number of times the light goes back and forth we get an indication of how much time has passed: up-down up-down, tick-tock tick-tock. (This may not seem very practical, but a real atomic clock does work on essentially the same principle.) Now imagine that the rocket is cruising at a significant fraction of the speed of light relative to the earth. Motion is relative, so for a person inside the rocket, f/1, there is no detectable change in the behavior of the clock, just as a person on a jet plane can toss a ball up and down without noticing anything unusual. But to an observer in the earth's frame of reference, the light appears to take a zigzag path through space, f/2, increasing the distance the light has to travel.
If we didn't believe in the principle of relativity, we could say that the light just goes faster according to the earthbound observer. Indeed, this would be correct if the speeds were much less than the speed of light, and if the thing traveling back and forth was, say, a ping-pong ball. But according to the principle of relativity, the speed of light must be the same in both frames of reference. We are forced to conclude that time is distorted, and the light-clock appears to run more slowly than normal as seen by the earthbound observer. In general, a clock appears to run most quickly for observers who are in the same state of motion as the clock, and runs more slowly as perceived by observers who are moving relative to the clock.
We can easily calculate the size of this time-distortion effect. In the frame of reference shown in figure f/1, moving with the spaceship, let t be the time required for the beam of light to move from the bottom to the top. An observer on the earth, who sees the situation shown in figure f/2, disagrees, and says this motion took a longer time T (a bigger letter for the bigger time). Let v be the velocity of the spaceship relative to the earth. In frame 2, the light beam travels along the hypotenuse of a right triangle, figure g, whose base has length
Although I won't prove it here, observers in the two frames of reference agree on the vertical distance traveled by the beam, i.e., the height of the triangle perceived in frame 2, and an observer in frame 1 says that this height is the distance covered by a light beam in time t, so the height is
where c is the speed of light. The hypotenuse of this triangle is the distance the light travels in frame 2,
Using the Pythagorean theorem, we can relate these three quantities,
and solving for T, we find
The amount of distortion is given by the factor , and this quantity appears so often that we give it a special name, γ (Greek letter gamma),
What is γ when v=0? What does this mean?(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)
We are used to thinking of time as absolute and universal, so it is disturbing to find that it can flow at a different rate for observers in different frames of reference. But consider the behavior of the γ factor shown in figure h. The graph is extremely flat at low speeds, and even at 20% of the speed of light, it is difficult to see anything happening to γ. In everyday life, we never experience speeds that are more than a tiny fraction of the speed of light, so this strange strange relativistic effect involving time is extremely small. This makes sense: Newton's laws have already been thoroughly tested by experiments at such speeds, so a new theory like relativity must agree with the old one in their realm of common applicability. This requirement of backwards-compatibility is known as the correspondence principle.
Once we know that time is distorted, the following argument shows that space must be distorted as well. Suppose that Alice stays on earth while her twin Betty heads off in a spaceship for Tau Ceti, a nearby star. Tau Ceti is 12 light-years away, so even though Betty travels at 87% of the speed of light, it will take her a long time to get there: 14 years, according to Alice. But Betty experiences time dilation. She has γ=2, so that the voyage will only seem to her to last 7 years. But there is perfect symmetry between Alice's and Betty's frames of reference, so Betty agrees with Alice on their relative speed; Betty sees herself as being at rest, while the sun and Tau Ceti both move backward at 87% of the speed of light. How, then, can she observe Tau Ceti to get to her in only 7 years, when it should take 14 years to travel 12 light-years at this speed? The only possible answer is that Betty sees the distance between the sun and Tau Ceti to be shrunk by a factor of 2. The same thing, of course, occurs for Alice, who observes Betty and her spaceship to be foreshortened.
In general, an object in motion appears longest to someone who is at rest with respect to it. Other observers see it shortened by a factor γ along the direction of motion.
Part of the concept of absolute time was the assumption that it was valid to say things like, “I wonder what my uncle in Beijing is doing right now.” In the nonrelativistic world-view, clocks in Los Angeles and Beijing could be synchronized and stay synchronized, so we could unambiguously define the concept of things happening simultaneously in different places. It is easy to find examples, however, where events that seem to be simultaneous in one frame of reference are not simultaneous in another frame. In figure i, a flash of light is set off in the center of the rocket's cargo hold. According to a passenger on the rocket, the parts of the light traveling forward and backward have equal distances to travel to reach the front and back walls, so they get there simultaneously. But an outside observer who sees the rocket cruising by at high speed will see the flash hit the back wall first, because the wall is rushing up to meet it, and the forward-going part of the flash hit the front wall later, because the wall was running away from it.
We conclude that simultaneity is not a well-defined concept. This idea may be easier to accept if we compare time with space. Even in plain old Galilean relativity, points in space have no identity of their own: you may think that two events happened at the same point in space, but anyone else in a differently moving frame of reference says they happened at different points in space. For instance, suppose you tap your knuckles on your desk right now, count to five, and then do it again. In your frame of reference, the taps happened at the same location in space, but according to an observer on Mars, your desk was on the surface of a planet hurtling through space at high speed, and the second tap was hundreds of kilometers away from the first.
Relativity says that time is the same way --- both simultaneity and “simulplaceity” are meaningless concepts. Only when the relative velocity of two frames is small compared to the speed of light will observers in those frames agree on the simultaneity of events.
One of the most famous of all the so-called relativity paradoxes has to do with our incorrect feeling that simultaneity is well defined. The idea is that one could take a schoolbus and drive it at relativistic speeds into a garage of ordinary size, in which it normally would not fit. Because of the length contraction, the bus would supposedly fit in the garage. The paradox arises when we shut the door and then quickly slam on the brakes of the bus. An observer in the garage's frame of reference will claim that the bus fit in the garage because of its contracted length. The driver, however, will perceive the garage as being contracted and thus even less able to contain the bus. The paradox is resolved when we recognize that the concept of fitting the bus in the garage “all at once” contains a hidden assumption, the assumption that it makes sense to ask whether the front and back of the bus can simultaneously be in the garage. Observers in different frames of reference moving at high relative speeds do not necessarily agree on whether things happen simultaneously. The person in the garage's frame can shut the door at an instant he perceives to be simultaneous with the front bumper's arrival at the back wall of the garage, but the driver would not agree about the simultaneity of these two events, and would perceive the door as having shut long after she plowed through the back wall.
What happens if we want to send a rocket ship off at, say, twice the speed of light, v=2c? Then γ will be . But your math teacher has always cautioned you about the severe penalties for taking the square root of a negative number. The result would be physically meaningless, so we conclude that no object can travel faster than the speed of light. Even travel exactly at the speed of light appears to be ruled out for material objects, since γ would then be infinite.
Einstein had therefore found a solution to his original paradox about riding on a motorcycle alongside a beam of light. The paradox is resolved because it is impossible for the motorcycle to travel at the speed of light.
Most people, when told that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, immediately begin to imagine methods of violating the rule. For instance, it would seem that by applying a constant force to an object for a long time, we could give it a constant acceleration, which would eventually make it go faster than the speed of light. We'll take up these issues in section 4.3.
A classic experiment to demonstrate time distortion uses observations of cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are protons and other atomic nuclei from outer space. When a cosmic ray happens to come the way of our planet, the first earth-matter it encounters is an air molecule in the upper atmosphere. This collision then creates a shower of particles that cascade downward and can often be detected at the earth's surface. One of the more exotic particles created in these cosmic ray showers is the muon (named after the Greek letter mu, μ). The reason muons are not a normal part of our environment is that a muon is radioactive, lasting only 2.2 microseconds on the average before changing itself into an electron and two neutrinos. A muon can therefore be used as a sort of clock, albeit a self-destructing and somewhat random one! Figures k and l show the average rate at which a sample of muons decays, first for muons created at rest and then for high-velocity muons created in cosmic-ray showers. The second graph is found experimentally to be stretched out by a factor of about ten, which matches well with the prediction of relativity theory:
Since a muon takes many microseconds to pass through the atmosphere, the result is a marked increase in the number of muons that reach the surface.
Our world is (fortunately) not full of human-scale objects moving at significant speeds compared to the speed of light. For this reason, it took over 80 years after Einstein's theory was published before anyone could come up with a conclusive example of drastic time dilation that wasn't confined to cosmic rays or particle accelerators. Recently, however, astronomers have found definitive proof that entire stars undergo time dilation. The universe is expanding in the aftermath of the Big Bang, so in general everything in the universe is getting farther away from everything else. One need only find an astronomical process that takes a standard amount of time, and then observe how long it appears to take when it occurs in a part of the universe that is receding from us rapidly. A type of exploding star called a type Ia supernova fills the bill, and technology is now sufficiently advanced to allow them to be detected across vast distances. Figure m shows convincing evidence for time dilation in the brightening and dimming of two distant supernovae.
A natural source of confusion in understanding the time-dilation effect is summed up in the so-called twin paradox, which is not really a paradox. Suppose there are two teenaged twins, and one stays at home on earth while the other goes on a round trip in a spaceship at relativistic speeds (i.e., speeds comparable to the speed of light, for which the effects predicted by the theory of relativity are important). When the traveling twin gets home, she has aged only a few years, while her sister is now old and gray. (Robert Heinlein even wrote a science fiction novel on this topic, although it is not one of his better stories.)
The “paradox” arises from an incorrect application of the principle of relativity to a description of the story from the traveling twin's point of view. From her point of view, the argument goes, her homebody sister is the one who travels backward on the receding earth, and then returns as the earth approaches the spaceship again, while in the frame of reference fixed to the spaceship, the astronaut twin is not moving at all. It would then seem that the twin on earth is the one whose biological clock should tick more slowly, not the one on the spaceship. The flaw in the reasoning is that the principle of relativity only applies to frames that are in motion at constant velocity relative to one another, i.e., inertial frames of reference. The astronaut twin's frame of reference, however, is noninertial, because her spaceship must accelerate when it leaves, decelerate when it reaches its destination, and then repeat the whole process again on the way home. Their experiences are not equivalent, because the astronaut twin feels accelerations and decelerations. A correct treatment requires some mathematical complication to deal with the changing velocity of the astronaut twin, but the result is indeed that it's the traveling twin who is younger when they are reunited.6
The twin “paradox” really isn't a paradox at all. It may even be a part of your ordinary life. The effect was first verified experimentally by synchronizing two atomic clocks in the same room, and then sending one for a round trip on a passenger jet. (They bought the clock its own ticket and put it in its own seat.) The clocks disagreed when the traveling one got back, and the discrepancy was exactly the amount predicted by relativity. The effects are strong enough to be important for making the global positioning system (GPS) work correctly. If you've ever taken a GPS receiver with you on a hiking trip, then you've used a device that has the twin “paradox” programmed into its calculations. Your handheld GPS box gets signals from a satellite, and the satellite is moving fast enough that its time dilation is an important effect. So far no astronauts have gone fast enough to make time dilation a dramatic effect in terms of the human lifetime. The effect on the Apollo astronauts, for instance, was only a fraction of a second, since their speeds were still fairly small compared to the speed of light. (As far as I know, none of the astronauts had twin siblings back on earth!)
Figure n shows an artist's rendering of the length contraction for the collision of two gold nuclei at relativistic speeds in the RHIC accelerator in Long Island, New York, which went on line in 2000. The gold nuclei would appear nearly spherical (or just slightly lengthened like an American football) in frames moving along with them, but in the laboratory's frame, they both appear drastically foreshortened as they approach the point of collision. The later pictures show the nuclei merging to form a hot soup, in which experimenters hope to observe a new form of matter.
A person in a spaceship moving at 99.99999999% of the speed of light relative to Earth shines a flashlight forward through dusty air, so the beam is visible. What does she see? What would it look like to an observer on Earth?
A question that students often struggle with is whether time and space can really be distorted, or whether it just seems that way. Compare with optical illusions or magic tricks. How could you verify, for instance, that the lines in the figure are actually parallel? Are relativistic effects the same or not?
On a spaceship moving at relativistic speeds, would a lecture seem even longer and more boring than normal?
Mechanical clocks can be affected by motion. For example, it was a significant technological achievement to build a clock that could sail aboard a ship and still keep accurate time, allowing longitude to be determined. How is this similar to or different from relativistic time dilation?
What would the shapes of the two nuclei in the RHIC experiment look like to a microscopic observer riding on the left-hand nucleus? To an observer riding on the right-hand one? Can they agree on what is happening? If not, why not --- after all, shouldn't they see the same thing if they both compare the two nuclei side-by-side at the same instant in time?
If you stick a piece of foam rubber out the window of your car while driving down the freeway, the wind may compress it a little. Does it make sense to interpret the relativistic length contraction as a type of strain that pushes an object's atoms together like this? How does this relate to discussion question E?
So far we have said nothing about how to predict motion in relativity. Do Newton's laws still work? Do conservation laws still apply? The answer is yes, but many of the definitions need to be modified, and certain entirely new phenomena occur, such as the conversion of mass to energy and energy to mass, as described by the famous equation E=mc2.
The impossibility of motion faster than light is a radical difference between relativistic and nonrelativistic physics, and we can get at most of the issues in this section by considering the flaws in various plans for going faster than light. The simplest argument of this kind is as follows. Suppose Janet takes a trip in a spaceship, and accelerates until she is moving at 0.8c (80% of the speed of light) relative to the earth. She then launches a space probe in the forward direction at a speed relative to her ship of 0.4c. Isn't the probe then moving at a velocity of 1.2 times the speed of light relative to the earth?
The problem with this line of reasoning is that although Janet says the probe is moving at 0.4c relative to her, earthbound observers disagree with her perception of time and space. Velocities therefore don't add the same way they do in Galilean relativity. Suppose we express all velocities as fractions of the speed of light. The Galilean addition of velocities can be summarized in this addition table:
The derivation of the correct relativistic result requires some tedious algebra, which you can find in my book Simple Nature if you're curious. I'll just state the numerical results here:
Janet's probe, for example, is moving not at 1.2c but at 0.91c, which is a drastically different result. The difference between the two tables is most evident around the edges, where all the results are equal to the speed of light. This is required by the principle of relativity. For example, if Janet sends out a beam of light instead of a probe, both she and the earthbound observers must agree that it moves at 1.00 times the speed of light, not 0.8+1=1.8. On the other hand, the correspondence principle requires that the relativistic result should correspond to ordinary addition for low enough velocities, and you can see that the tables are nearly identical in the center.
Here's another flawed scheme for traveling faster than the speed of light. The basic idea can be demonstrated by dropping a ping-pong ball and a baseball stacked on top of each other like a snowman. They separate slightly in mid-air, and the baseball therefore has time to hit the floor and rebound before it collides with the ping-pong ball, which is still on the way down. The result is a surprise if you haven't seen it before: the ping-pong ball flies off at high speed and hits the ceiling! A similar fact is known to people who investigate the scenes of accidents involving pedestrians. If a car moving at 90 kilometers per hour hits a pedestrian, the pedestrian flies off at nearly double that speed, 180 kilometers per hour. Now suppose the car was moving at 90 percent of the speed of light. Would the pedestrian fly off at 180% of c?
To see why not, we have to back up a little and think about where this speed-doubling result comes from. For any collision, there is a special frame of reference, the center-of-mass frame, in which the two colliding objects approach each other, collide, and rebound with their velocities reversed. In the center-of-mass frame, the total momentum of the objects is zero both before and after the collision.
Figure q/1 shows such a frame of reference for objects of very unequal mass. Before the collision, the large ball is moving relatively slowly toward the top of the page, but because of its greater mass, its momentum cancels the momentum of the smaller ball, which is moving rapidly in the opposite direction. The total momentum is zero. After the collision, the two balls just reverse their directions of motion. We know that this is the right result for the outcome of the collision because it conserves both momentum and kinetic energy, and everything not forbidden is mandatory, i.e., in any experiment, there is only one possible outcome, which is the one that obeys all the conservation laws.
How do we know that momentum and kinetic energy are conserved in figure q/1?(answer in the back of the PDF version of the book)
Let's make up some numbers as an example. Say the small ball has a mass of 1 kg, the big one 8 kg. In frame 1, let's make the velocities as follows:
before the collision
after the collision
Figure q/2 shows the same collision in a frame of reference where the small ball was initially at rest. To find all the velocities in this frame, we just add 0.8 to all the ones in the previous table.
before the collision
after the collision
In this frame, as expected, the small ball flies off with a velocity, 1.6, that is almost twice the initial velocity of the big ball, 0.9.
If all those velocities were in meters per second, then that's exactly what happened. But what if all these velocities were in units of the speed of light? Now it's no longer a good approximation just to add velocities. We need to combine them according to the relativistic rules. For instance, the table on page 87 tells us that combining a velocity of 0.8 times the speed of light with another velocity of 0.8 results in 0.98, not 1.6. The results are very different:
before the collision
after the collision
We can interpret this as follows. Figure q/1 is one in which the big ball is moving fairly slowly. This is very nearly the way the scene would be seen by an ant standing on the big ball. According to an observer in frame r, however, both balls are moving at nearly the speed of light after the collision. Because of this, the balls appear foreshortened, but the distance between the two balls is also shortened. To this observer, it seems that the small ball isn't pulling away from the big ball very fast.
Now here's what's interesting about all this. The outcome shown in figure q/2 was supposed to be the only one possible, the only one that satisfied both conservation of energy and conservation of momentum. So how can the different result shown in figure r be possible? The answer is that relativistically, momentum must not equal mv. The old, familiar definition is only an approximation that's valid at low speeds. If we observe the behavior of the small ball in figure r, it looks as though it somehow had some extra inertia. It's as though a football player tried to knock another player down without realizing that the other guy had a three-hundred-pound bag full of lead shot hidden under his uniform --- he just doesn't seem to react to the collision as much as he should. This extra inertia is described by redefining momentum as
At very low velocities, γ is close to 1, and the result is very nearly mv, as demanded by the correspondence principle. But at very high velocities, γ gets very big --- the small ball in figure r has a γ of 5.0, and therefore has five times more inertia than we would expect nonrelativistically.
This also explains the answer to another paradox often posed by beginners at relativity. Suppose you keep on applying a steady force to an object that's already moving at 0.9999c. Why doesn't it just keep on speeding up past c? The answer is that force is the rate of change of momentum. At 0.9999c, an object already has a γ of 71, and therefore has already sucked up 71 times the momentum you'd expect at that speed. As its velocity gets closer and closer to c, its γ approaches infinity. To move at c, it would need an infinite momentum, which could only be caused by an infinite force.
Now we're ready to see why mass and energy must be equivalent as claimed in the famous E=mc2. So far we've only considered collisions in which none of the kinetic energy is converted into any other form of energy, such as heat or sound. Let's consider what happens if a blob of putty moving at velocity v hits another blob that is initially at rest, sticking to it. The nonrelativistic result is that to obey conservation of momentum the two blobs must fly off together at v/2. Half of the initial kinetic energy has been converted to heat.7
Relativistically, however, an interesting thing happens. A hot object has more momentum than a cold object! This is because the relativistically correct expression for momentum is mγ v, and the more rapidly moving atoms in the hot object have higher values of γ. In our collision, the final combined blob must therefore be moving a little more slowly than the expected v/2, since otherwise the final momentum would have been a little greater than the initial momentum. To an observer who believes in conservation of momentum and knows only about the overall motion of the objects and not about their heat content, the low velocity after the collision would seem to be the result of a magical change in the mass, as if the mass of two combined, hot blobs of putty was more than the sum of their individual masses.
Now we know that the masses of all the atoms in the blobs must be the same as they always were. The change is due to the change in γ with heating, not to a change in mass. The heat energy, however, seems to be acting as if it was equivalent to some extra mass.
But this whole argument was based on the fact that heat is a form of kinetic energy at the atomic level. Would E=mc2 apply to other forms of energy as well? Suppose a rocket ship contains some electrical energy stored in a battery. If we believed that E=mc2 applied to forms of kinetic energy but not to electrical energy, then we would have to believe that the pilot of the rocket could slow the ship down by using the battery to run a heater! This would not only be strange, but it would violate the principle of relativity, because the result of the experiment would be different depending on whether the ship was at rest or not. The only logical conclusion is that all forms of energy are equivalent to mass. Running the heater then has no effect on the motion of the ship, because the total energy in the ship was unchanged; one form of energy (electrical) was simply converted to another (heat).
The equation E=mc2 tells us how much energy is equivalent to how much mass: the conversion factor is the square of the speed of light, c. Since c a big number, you get a really really big number when you multiply it by itself to get c2. This means that even a small amount of mass is equivalent to a very large amount of energy.
We've already seen several examples of applications of E=mc2, on page 32.
1. Astronauts in three different spaceships are communicating with each other.
Those aboard ships A and B agree on the rate at which time is passing, but
they disagree with the ones on ship C.
(a) Alice is aboard ship A. How does she describe the motion of her own ship, in its frame of reference?
(b) Describe the motion of the other two ships according to Alice.
(c) Give the description according to Betty, whose frame of reference is ship B.
(d) Do the same for Cathy, aboard ship C.
(a) Figure g on page 78 is based on a light clock moving at a certain
speed, v. By measuring with a ruler on the figure, determine v/c.
(b) By similar measurements, find the time contraction factor γ, which equals T/t.
(c) Locate your numbers from parts a and b as a point on the graph in figure h on page 79, and check that it actually lies on the curve. Make a sketch showing where the point is on the curve.\
3. This problem is a continuation of problem 2. Now imagine that the spaceship speeds up to twice the velocity. Draw a new triangle, using a ruler to make the lengths of the sides accurate. Repeat parts b and c for this new diagram.
4. What happens in the equation for γ when you put in a negative number for v? Explain what this means physically, and why it makes sense.
5. (a) By measuring with a ruler on the graph in figure m on page 83,
estimate the γ values of the two supernovae.(answer check available at lightandmatter.com)
(b) Figure m gives the values of v/c. From these, compute γ values and compare with the results from part a.(answer check available at lightandmatter.com)
The Voyager 1 space probe, launched in 1977, is moving faster relative to the earth than
any other human-made object, at 17,000 meters per second.
(a) Calculate the probe's γ.
(b) Over the course of one year on earth, slightly less than one year passes on the probe. How much less? (There are 31 million seconds in a year.)(answer check available at lightandmatter.com)
(a) Find a relativistic equation for the velocity of an
object in terms of its mass and momentum (eliminating
γ). For momentum, use the symbol p, which is standard notation.
(b) Show that your result is approximately the same as the classical value, p/m, at low velocities.
(c) Show that very large momenta result in speeds close to the speed of light.
(a) Show that for v=(3/5)c, γ comes out to be a simple fraction.
(b) Find another value of v for which γ is a simple fraction.
9. In Slowlightland, the speed of light is 20 mi/hr = 32 km/hr = 9 m/s. Think of an example of how relativistic effects would work in sports. Things can get very complex very quickly, so try to think of a simple example that focuses on just one of the following effects: