Special Relativity/Spacetime

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The modern approach to relativity[edit]

Although the special theory of relativity was first proposed by Einstein in 1905, the modern approach to the theory depends upon the concept of a four-dimensional universe, that was first proposed by Hermann Minkowski in 1908.

Minkowski's contribution appears complicated but is simply an extension of Pythagoras' Theorem:

In 2 dimensions:

In 3 dimensions:

in 4 dimensions:

(where k = )

The modern approach uses the concept of invariance to explore the types of coordinate systems that are required to provide a full physical description of the location and extent of things. The modern theory of special relativity begins with the concept of "length". In everyday experience, it seems that the length of objects remains the same no matter how they are rotated or moved from place to place. We think that the simple length of a thing is "invariant". However, as is shown in the illustrations below, what we are actually suggesting is that length seems to be invariant in a three-dimensional coordinate system.


The length of a thing in a two-dimensional coordinate system is given by Pythagoras's theorem:

This two-dimensional length is not invariant if the thing is tilted out of the two-dimensional plane. In everyday life, a three-dimensional coordinate system seems to describe the length fully. The length is given by the three-dimensional version of Pythagoras's theorem:

The derivation of this formula is shown in the illustration below.


It seems that, provided all the directions in which a thing can be tilted or arranged are represented within a coordinate system, then the coordinate system can fully represent the length of a thing. However, it is clear that things may also be changed over a period of time. Time is another direction in which things can be arranged. This is shown in the following diagram:


The length of a straight line between two events in space and time is called a "space-time interval".

In 1908 Hermann Minkowski pointed out that if things could be rearranged in time, then the universe might be four-dimensional. He boldly suggested that Einstein's recently-discovered theory of Special Relativity was a consequence of this four-dimensional universe. He proposed that the space-time interval might be related to space and time by Pythagoras' theorem in four dimensions:

Where i is the imaginary unit (sometimes imprecisely called ), c is a constant, and t is the time interval spanned by the space-time interval, s. The symbols x, y and z represent displacements in space along the corresponding axes. In this equation, the 'second' becomes just another unit of length. In the same way as centimetres and inches are both units of length related by centimetres = 'conversion constant' times inches, metres and seconds are related by metres = 'conversion constant' times seconds. The conversion constant, c has a value of about 300,000,000 meters per second. Now is equal to minus one, so the space-time interval is given by:

Minkowski's use of the imaginary unit has been superseded by the use of advanced geometry that uses a tool known as the "metric tensor". The metric tensor permits the existence of "real" time and the negative sign in the expression for the square of the space-time interval originates in the way that distance changes with time when the curvature of spacetime is analysed (see advanced text). We now use real time but Minkowski's original equation for the square of the interval survives so that the space-time interval is still given by:

Space-time intervals are difficult to imagine; they extend between one place and time and another place and time, so the velocity of the thing that travels along the interval is already determined for a given observer.

If the universe is four-dimensional, then the space-time interval will be invariant, rather than spatial length. Whoever measures a particular space-time interval will get the same value, no matter how fast they are travelling. In physical terminology the invariance of the spacetime interval is a type of Lorentz Invariance. The invariance of the spacetime interval has some dramatic consequences.

The first consequence is the prediction that if a thing is travelling at a velocity of c metres per second, then all observers, no matter how fast they are travelling, will measure the same velocity for the thing. The velocity c will be a universal constant. This is explained below.

When an object is travelling at c, the space time interval is zero, this is shown below:

The distance travelled by an object moving at velocity v in the x direction for t seconds is:
If there is no motion in the y or z directions the space-time interval is
But when the velocity v equals c:
And hence the space time interval

A space-time interval of zero only occurs when the velocity is c (if x>0). All observers observe the same space-time interval so when observers observe something with a space-time interval of zero, they all observe it to have a velocity of c, no matter how fast they are moving themselves.

The universal constant, c, is known for historical reasons as the "speed of light in a vacuum". In the first decade or two after the formulation of Minkowski's approach many physicists, although supporting Special Relativity, expected that light might not travel at exactly c, but might travel at very nearly c. There are now few physicists who believe that light in a vacuum does not propagate at c.

The second consequence of the invariance of the space-time interval is that clocks will appear to go slower on objects that are moving relative to you. Suppose there are two people, Bill and John, on separate planets that are moving away from each other. John draws a graph of Bill's motion through space and time. This is shown in the illustration below:


Being on planets, both Bill and John think they are stationary, and just moving through time. John spots that Bill is moving through what John calls space, as well as time, when Bill thinks he is moving through time alone. Bill would also draw the same conclusion about John's motion. To John, it is as if Bill's time axis is leaning over in the direction of travel and to Bill, it is as if John's time axis leans over.

John calculates the length of Bill's space-time interval as:
whereas Bill doesn't think he has travelled in space, so writes:

The space-time interval, , is invariant. It has the same value for all observers, no matter who measures it or how they are moving in a straight line. Bill's equals John's so:


So, if John sees Bill measure a time interval of 1 second () between two ticks of a clock that is at rest in Bill's frame, John will find that his own clock measures between these same ticks an interval , called coordinate time, which is greater than one second. It is said that clocks in motion slow down, relative to those on observers at rest. This is known as "relativistic time dilation of a moving clock". The time that is measured in the rest frame of the clock (in Bill's frame) is called the proper time of the clock.

John will also observe measuring rods at rest on Bill's planet to be shorter than his own measuring rods, in the direction of motion. This is a prediction known as "relativistic length contraction of a moving rod". If the length of a rod at rest on Bill's planet is , then we call this quantity the proper length of the rod. The length of that same rod as measured from John's planet, is called coordinate length, and given by


This equation can be derived directly and validly from the time dilation result with the assumption that the speed of light is constant.

The last consequence is that clocks will appear to be out of phase with each other along the length of a moving object. This means that if one observer sets up a line of clocks that are all synchronised so they all read the same time, then another observer who is moving along the line at high speed will see the clocks all reading different times. In other words observers who are moving relative to each other see different events as simultaneous. This effect is known as Relativistic Phase or the Relativity of Simultaneity. Relativistic phase is often overlooked by students of Special Relativity, but if it is understood then phenomena such as the twin paradox are easier to understand.

The way that clocks go out of phase along the line of travel can be calculated from the concepts of the invariance of the space-time interval and length contraction.


In the diagram above John is conventionally stationary. Distances between two points according to Bill are simple lengths in space (x) all at t=0 whereas John sees Bill's measurement of distance as a combination of a distance (X) and a time interval (T):

Notice that the quantities represented by capital letters are proper lengths and times and in this example refer to John's measurements.

Bill's distance, x, is the length that he would obtain for things that John believes to be X metres in length. For Bill it is John who has rods that contract in the direction of motion so Bill's determination "x" of John's distance "X" is given from:


This relationship between proper and coordinate lengths was seen above to relate Bill's proper lengths to John's measurements. It also applies to how Bill observes John's proper lengths.


Clocks that are synchronised for one observer go out of phase along the line of travel for another observer moving at metres per second by : seconds for every metre. This is one of the most important results of Special Relativity and should be thoroughly understood by students.

The net effect of the four-dimensional universe is that observers who are in motion relative to you seem to have time coordinates that lean over in the direction of motion and consider things to be simultaneous that are not simultaneous for you. Spatial lengths in the direction of travel are shortened, because they tip upwards and downwards, relative to the time axis in the direction of travel, akin to a rotation out of three-dimensional space.


What velocity would cause events A and B to be simultaneous?
An observer records an event A next to herself then an event B a millisecond later and 600 kilometres away. How fast would another observer need to travel in the direction of event B to record it as simultaneous with event A?
The phase difference between moving clocks is given by:
The velocity needed to create a phase difference of 10-3 secs is:
This means that another observer who is travelling at 0.5c relative to the first observer in the direction of the line joining events A and B will consider that these events are simultaneous.

Interpreting space-time diagrams[edit]

Great care is needed when interpreting space-time diagrams. Diagrams present data in two dimensions, and cannot show faithfully how, for instance, a zero length space-time interval appears.


When diagrams are used to show both space and time it is important to be alert to space and time being related by Minkowski's equation and not by simple Euclidean geometry. The diagrams are only aids to understanding the approximate relation between space and time and it must not be assumed, for instance, that simple trigonometric relationships can be used to relate lines that represent spatial displacements and lines that represent temporal displacements.

It is sometimes mistakenly held that the time dilation and length contraction results only apply for observers at x=0 and t=0. This is untrue. An inertial frame of reference is defined so that length and time comparisons can be made anywhere within a given reference frame.

Time dilation applies to time measurements taken between corresponding planes of simultaneity

Time differences in one inertial reference frame can be compared with time differences anywhere in another inertial reference frame provided it is remembered that these differences apply to corresponding pairs of lines or pairs of planes of simultaneous events.


Spacetime diagram showing an event, a world line, and a line of simultaneity.

In order to gain an understanding of both Galilean and Special Relativity it is important to begin thinking of space and time as being different dimensions of a four-dimensional vector space called spacetime. Actually, since we can't visualize four dimensions very well, it is easiest to start with only one space dimension and the time dimension. The figure shows a graph with time plotted on the vertical axis and the one space dimension plotted on the horizontal axis. An event is something that occurs at a particular time and a particular point in space. ("Julius X. wrecks his car in Lemitar, NM on 21 June at 6:17 PM.") A world line is a plot of the position of some object as a function of time (more properly, the time of the object as a function of position) on a spacetime diagram. Thus, a world line is really a line in spacetime, while an event is a point in spacetime. A horizontal line parallel to the position axis (x-axis) is a line of simultaneity; in Galilean Relativity all events on this line occur simultaneously for all observers. It will be seen that the line of simultaneity differs between Galilean and Special Relativity; in Special Relativity the line of simultaneity depends on the state of motion of the observer.

In a spacetime diagram the slope of a world line has a special meaning. Notice that a vertical world line means that the object it represents does not move -- the velocity is zero. If the object moves to the right, then the world line tilts to the right, and the faster it moves, the more the world line tilts. Quantitatively, we say that


Notice that this works for negative slopes and velocities as well as positive ones. If the object changes its velocity with time, then the world line is curved, and the instantaneous velocity at any time is the inverse of the slope of the tangent to the world line at that time.

The hardest thing to realize about spacetime diagrams is that they represent the past, present, and future all in one diagram. Thus, spacetime diagrams don't change with time -- the evolution of physical systems is represented by looking at successive horizontal slices in the diagram at successive times. Spacetime diagrams represent the evolution of events, but they don't evolve themselves.

The lightcone[edit]

Things that move at the speed of light in our four dimensional universe have surprising properties. If something travels at the speed of light along the x-axis and covers x meters from the origin in t seconds the space-time interval of its path is zero.

but so:

Extending this result to the general case, if something travels at the speed of light in any direction into or out from the origin it has a space-time interval of 0:

This equation is known as the Minkowski Light Cone Equation. If light were travelling towards the origin then the Light Cone Equation would describe the position and time of emission of all those photons that could be at the origin at a particular instant. If light were travelling away from the origin the equation would describe the position of the photons emitted at a particular instant at any future time 't'.


At the superficial level the light cone is easy to interpret. Its backward surface represents the path of light rays that strike a point observer at an instant and its forward surface represents the possible paths of rays emitted from the point observer. Things that travel along the surface of the light cone are said to be light- like and the path taken by such things is known as a null geodesic.

Events that lie outside the cones are said to be space-like or, better still space separated because their space time interval from the observer has the same sign as space (positive according to the convention used here). Events that lie within the cones are said to be time-like or time separated because their space-time interval has the same sign as time.

However, there is more to the light cone than the propagation of light. If the added assumption is made that the speed of light is the maximum possible velocity then events that are space separated cannot affect the observer directly. Events within the backward cone can have affected the observer so the backward cone is known as the "affective past" and the observer can affect events in the forward cone hence the forward cone is known as the "affective future".

The assumption that the speed of light is the maximum velocity for all communications is neither inherent in nor required by four dimensional geometry although the speed of light is indeed the maximum velocity for objects if the principle of causality is to be preserved by physical theories (ie: that causes precede effects).

The Lorentz transformation equations[edit]

The discussion so far has involved the comparison of interval measurements (time intervals and space intervals) between two observers. The observers might also want to compare more general sorts of measurement such as the time and position of a single event that is recorded by both of them. The equations that describe how each observer describes the other's recordings in this circumstance are known as the Lorentz Transformation Equations. (Note that the symbols below signify coordinates.)


The table below shows the Lorentz Transformation Equations.

See mathematical derivation of Lorentz transformation.

Notice how the phase ( (v/c2)x ) is important and how these formulae for absolute time and position of a joint event differ from the formulae for intervals.

A spacetime representation of the Lorentz Transformation[edit]

Spacetime representation of Lorentz Transformation for time

Bill and John are moving at a relative velocity, v, and synchronise clocks when they pass each other. Both Bill and John observe an event along Bill's direction of motion. What times will Bill and John assign to the event? It was shown above that the relativistic phase was given by: . This means that Bill will observe an extra amount of time elapsing on John's time axis due to the position of the event. Taking phase into account and using the time dilation equation Bill is going to observe that the amount of time his own clocks measure can be compared with John's clocks using:


This relationship between the times of a common event between reference frames is known as the Lorentz Transformation Equation for time.