Einstein’s Special Relativity – The Core Idea

It might surprise you that a huge part of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity can be summed up in just one simple sentence. Here it is:

“The speed of light is the same in all frames of references”

In other words: no matter what your location or speed is, you will always measure the speed of light to be c = 300,000,000 m/s (approximate value). Not really that fascinating you say? Think of the implications. This sentence not only includes the doom of classical physics, it also forces us to give up our notions of time. How so?

Suppose you watch a train driving off into the distance with v = 30 m/s relative to you. Now someone on the train throws a tennis ball forward with u = 10 m/s relative to the train. How fast do you perceive the ball to be? Intuitively, we simply add the velocities. If the train drives off with 30 m/s and the ball adds another 10 m/s to that, it should have the speed w = 40 m/s relative to you. Any measurement would confirm this and all is well.

Now imagine (and I mean really imagine) said train is driving off into the distance with half the light speed, or v = 0.5 * c. Someone on the train shines a flashlight forwards. Obviously, this light is going at light speed relative to the train, or u = c. How fast do you perceive the light to be? We have the train at 0.5 * c and the light photons at the speed c on top of that, so according to our intuition we should measure the light at a velocity of v = 1.5 * c. But now think back to the above sentence:

“The speed of light is the same in all frames of references”

No matter how fast the train goes, we will always measure light coming from it at the same speed, period. Here, our intiution differs from physical reality. This becomes even clearer when we take it a step further. Let’s have the train drive off with almost light speed and have someone on the train shine a flashlight forwards. We know the light photons to go at light speed, so from our perspective the train is almost able to keep up with the light. An observer on the train would strongly disagree. For him the light beam is moving away as it always does and the train is not keeping up with the light in any way.

How is this possible? Both you and the observer on the train describe the same physical reality, but the perception of it is fundamentally different. There is only one way to make the disagreement go away and that is by giving up the idea that one second for you is the same as one second on the train. If you make the intervals of time dependent on speed in just the right fashion, all is well.

Suppose that one second for you is only one microsecond on the train. In your one second the distance between the train and the light beam grows by 300 meter. So you say: the light is going 300 m / 1 s = 300 m/s faster than the train.

However, for the people in the train, this same 300 meter distance arises in just one microsecond, so they say: the light is going 300 m / 1 µs = 300 m / 0.000,001 s  = 300,000,000 m/s faster than the train – as fast as it always does.

Note that this is a case of either / or. If the speed of light is the same in all frames of references, then we must give up our notions of time. If the light speed depends on your location and speed, then we get to keep our intiutive image of time. So what do the experiments say? All experiments regarding this agree that the speed of light is indeed the same in all frames of references and thus our everyday perception of time is just a first approximation to reality.

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