Posts Tagged ‘Albert Einstein’

I have taught special relativity for many years, but every time I teach it I present the result that mass changes as a function of velocity as a consequence of the modified version of Newton’s 2nd law.

As almost everyone knows, Newton’s 2nd law says that


where F is the force applied, m is the mass, and a is the acceleration felt by the body. In Newtonian mechanics, mass is invariant, but a consequence of special relativity is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light c. This raises the conundrum of why can’t we keep applying a force to a body of mass m, causing it to continue accelerating and to ultimately increase its velocity to one greater than the speed of light?

The answer is that Newton’s 2nd law is incomplete. Einstein showed that mass is also a function of velocity, and so we should write

m = \gamma m_{0} \text{ (1) }

Where \gamma = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ (1 - V^{2}/c^{2}) } } is the so-called Lorentz factor andm_{0} is the rest mass (also known as the invariant mass or gravitational mass), the mass an object has when it is at rest relative to the observer. Hence we can argue that, as we approach the speed of light, the applied force goes into changing the mass of the body, rather than accelerating it, leading to a modified version of Newton’s 2nd law

F = \gamma m_{0} a

where both velocity and/or mass change as a force is applied. But, because of the fact that \gamma \approx 1 until V \approx c/2 (see Figure 1), very little increase in mass occurs until V has reached appreciable values.

The variation of \gamma (the Lorentz factor) as a function of the speed V. Until V \approx c/2, \; \gamma is very close to unity

However, I have always found this an inadequate explanation of the relativistic mass, as it does not derive it but rather argues for its necessity. So, as I’m teaching special relativity again this year, I decided a few weeks ago to see if I could find a way of deriving it from a simple argument. After several weeks of hunting around I think I have found a derivation which is robust and easy to understand. But, in my searching I came across several “derivations” which were nothing more than circular arguments, and also some derivations which were simply incorrect.

Two balls colliding

The best explanation that I have found to derive the relativistic mass is to use the scenario of two balls colliding. Although it would be possible, in theory to have the balls moving in any direction, we are going to make things a lot easier by having the balls moving in the y-direction, but with the two reference frames S \text{ and } S^{\prime} moving relative to each other with a velocity V in the x-direction. Also, the balls are going to have the same rest mass, m_{0}, as measured in their respective frames S and S^{\prime} (the rest mass of each ball can be measured by each observer in their respective reference frames when they are at rest in their respective frames).

The blue ball B moves solely in the y-direction in reference frame S, and the red ball R moves solely in the y^{\prime}-direction in reference frame S^{\prime}. Ball B starts by moving in the positive y-direction in reference frame S with a velocity u_{0}, and ball R starts moving in the negative y^{\prime}-direction in reference frame S^{\prime} with a velocity -u_{0} in frame S^{\prime}.

Reference frame S^{\prime} is moving relative to frame S at a velocity V in the positive x-direction. So, as seen in S, the motion of ball R appears as shown in the left of Figure 2. That is, it appears in S to move both in the negative y-direction and the positive x-direction, and so follows the path shown by the red arrow pointing downwards and to the right.

At some moment the two balls collide. After the collision, as seen in S, ball B will move vertically downwards in the negative y-direction, with a velocity -u_{0}. Ball R moves upwards (positive y-direction) and to the right (positive x-direction), as shown by the red arrow in the diagram on the left of Figure 1.

In reference frame S^{\prime} the motions of balls B and R looks like the diagram on the right of Figure 1. In S^{\prime}, it is ball R which moves vertically, and ball B which moves in both the x^{\prime} and y^{\prime} directions.


Two balls colliding. Ball B (in blue) moves solely in the y-direciton as seen in frame S, ball R (in red) moves solely in the y-direction in frame S^{\prime}.


The velocity of ball R in S

To calculate the velocity of ball R as seen in S, we have to use the Lorentz transformations for velocity. As we showed in this blog here, if we have an object moving with a velocity u^{\prime} in S^{\prime} which is moving relative to S with a velocity V, then the velocity u in frame S is given by

u = \frac{ u^{\prime} + V }{ \left( 1 + \frac{ u^{\prime}V }{ c^{2} } \right) } \text{ (2) }

This equation is true when the velocity is in the x^{\prime}-direction, and the frames are moving relative to each other in the x-direction. So we are going to re-write Equ. (2) as

u_{x} = \frac{ u^{\prime}_{x} + V }{ \left( 1 + \frac{ u^{\prime}_{x}V }{ c^{2} } \right) } \text{ (3) }

However, if the velocity of an object is in the y^{\prime}-direction, rather than the x^{\prime}-direction, then we need a different expression. We can derive it from going back to our equations for the Lorentz transformations


The Lorentz transformations

This time we write

dy = dy^{\prime}


dt = \gamma \left( dt^{\prime} + \frac{ dx^{\prime}V }{ c^{2} } \right)


\frac{ dy }{ dt } = \frac{ dy^{\prime} }{ \gamma \left( dt^{\prime} + \frac{ dx^{\prime}V }{ c^{2} } \right) }

Dividing each term in the right-hand side by dt^{\prime}, we get

\frac{ dy }{ dt } = \frac{ dy^{\prime}/dt^{\prime} }{ \gamma \left( dt^{\prime}/dt^{\prime} + \frac{ dx^{\prime}V }{ dt^{\prime}c^{2} } \right) }

u_{y} = \frac{ u^{\prime}_{y} }{ \gamma \left( 1 + \frac{ u^{\prime}_{x}V }{ c^{2} } \right) } \text{ (4) }

Equations (3) and (4) allow us to work out the components of ball R’s velocities u_{x} in the x-direction and u_{y} in the y-direction in frame S.

u(R)_{x} = \frac{ 0 + V }{ \left( 1 + \frac{ 0 \cdot V }{ c^{2} } \right) } = V \text{ (5) }

u(R)_{y} = \frac{ -u_{0} }{ \gamma \left( 1 + \frac{ 0 \cdot V }{ c^{2} } \right) } = \frac{ -u_{0} }{ \gamma } \text{ (6) }

After the collision, the velocity of ball B becomes u(B) = -u_{0}. What about ball R?

We can see that u(R)_{x} will not change, and u(R)_{y} after the collision will be - \frac{ + u_{0} }{ \gamma }.

The momentum before and after the collision

We are now going to look at the momentum of balls B and R before and after the collision, as seen in frame S. We will start off by assuming that the mass is constant for both balls, that is that m=m_{0} for both balls, despite the two reference frames moving relative to each other.

If we do this, we can write that the momentum in the x-direction before the collision is given by

(p(B)_{x} + p(R)_{x})_{i} = 0 + m_{0}V = m_{0}V

The momentum after the collision in the x-direction is given by

(p(B)_{x} + p(R)_{x})_{f} = 0 + m_{0}V = m_{0}V

So, momentum is conserved in the x-direction. But, what about in the y-direction? Before the collision, the momentum is given by

(p(B)_{y} + p(R)_{y})_{i} = + m_{0}u_{0} + m_{0} \left( \frac{ -u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right) =m_{0}u_{0} - \frac{ m_{0}u_{0} }{ \gamma }

After the collision, the momentum in the y-direction is given by

(p(B)_{y} + p(R)_{y})_{f} = m_{0}(-u_{0}) + m_{0} \left( \frac{ +u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right) = -m_{0}u_{0} + \frac{ m_{0}u_{0} }{ \gamma }.

If we assume that momentum is conserved, we can write

m_{0}u_{0} - \frac{ m_{0}u_{0} }{ \gamma } = -m_{0}u_{0} + \frac{ m_{0}u_{0} }{ \gamma } \rightarrow 2m_{0}u_{0} = \frac{ 2m_{0}u_{0} }{ \gamma } \rightarrow \gamma = 1

So, if we assume that the mass of both ball B and ball R in frame S is m_{0}, the momentum in the y-direction is only conserved if \gamma =1. But, \gamma is only equal to unity when the relative velocity V between the two frames is zero; in other words when the two frames are not moving relative to each other! If V \neq 0 and mass is constant, momentum will not be conserved.

In physics, the conservation of momentum is considered a law, it is believed to always hold. In order for momentum to be conserved, we can qualitatively see that the mass of ball R needs to be greater than the mass of ball B as seen in frame S, as the speed of ball R in the y-direction in frame S, |u(R)_{y}| = u_{0} / \gamma < u_{0}.

Allowing the mass to change

We have just shown above that, if we assume both masses are invariant, momentum will only be conserved in the y-direction in the trivial case where the two frames are stationary relative to each other. So, let us now assume that, if V \neq 0, we have to allow the masses to change.

We will assume that mass is a function of speed. For ball B, the momentum in the x-direction is still zero, both before and after the collision. For ball R, we will now write the momentum in the x-direction, both before and after the collision, as

p(R)_{x} = m(R) u(R)_{x} = m(R) V

What about in the y-direction? For ball B, before the collision we can write

p(B)_{y} = m(B) u(B)_{y} = m(B) u_{0}

Where m(B) is the mass of ball B in frame S which is affected by its velocity in frame S, which is u_{0}.

For ball R as seen in frame S we can write that the momentum in the y-direction before the collision is given by

p(R)_{y} = m(R) u(R)_{y} = m(R) \cdot \left( \frac{ - u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right) = \frac{ -m(B)u_{0} }{ \gamma }

Where \gamma = 1/(1-V^{2}/c^{2}), the Lorentz factor due to the relative velocity V between S and S^{\prime}.

After the collision, we can write the momentum for ball B in the y-direction as being

p(B)_{y} = m(B) u(B)_{y} = -m(B) u_{0}

And, for ball R we can write

p(R)_{y} = m(R) u(R)_{y} = \frac{ +m(R)u_{0} }{ \gamma }

Equating the momentum in the y-direction before and after the collision, we have

m(B) u_{0} - \left( \frac{ m(R) u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right) = -m(B) u_{0} + \left( \frac{ m(R) u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right)

\rightarrow 2m(B) u_{0} = 2 \left( \frac{ m(R) u_{0} }{ \gamma } \right) \rightarrow m(A) =\frac{ m(R) }{ \gamma }

For ball B, we will write

m(B) = \gamma_{B} m_{0}


\gamma_{B} = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt( 1 - u^{2}(B)/c^{2} ) } = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) }

(that is, \gamma_{B} depends on the speed of ball B in frame S, and that speed is u_{0}).

So, the momentum of ball B in the y-direction is given by

p(B)_{y} = m(B)u(B)_{y} \rightarrow \boxed {p(B)_{y} = \frac{ m_{0} u_{0} }{ \sqrt( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) } \text{ (7) } }

For ball R, we will write

m(R) = \gamma_{R} m_{0}

Where \gamma_{R} = 1/\sqrt{ (1 - u^{2}(R)/c^{2} ) } depends on the speed u(R) of ball R as seen in frame S. (Note: the mass does not depend on just the y-component of ball R‘s speed (as is often incorrectly stated), it depends on its total speed).

To calculate the value of u(R) we note that it is made up of the x-component u(R)_{x} and the y-component u(R)_{y}. But, u(R)_{x} = V, and we showed above that u(R)_{y} = -u_{0}/ \gamma, where this \gamma = 1/\sqrt{ (1 - V^{2}/c^{2}) }.

Using Pythagoras to calculate u(R), we have

u(R)^{2} = V^{2} + u_{0}^{2}/\gamma^{2} = V^{2} + u_{0}^{2}(1 -V^{2}/c^{2})


u(R)^{2} = u_{0}^{2} + V^{2}( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} )

Using this value of u(R) we can write

\gamma_{R} = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u(R)^{2}/c^{2} )} } = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} - V^{2}/c^{2} + V^{2}u_{0}^{2}/c^{4} ) } }

But, the terms ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} - V^{2}/c^{2} + V^{2}u_{0}^{2}/c^{4} ) can be factorised as

( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} - V^{2}/c^{2} + V^{2}u_{0}^{2}/c^{4} ) = (1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2})(1 - V^{2}/c^{2})

And so we can write

\gamma_{R} = \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) } \sqrt{ (1 - V^{2}/c^{2}) } }

But, 1/\sqrt{ (1 - V^{2}/c^{2}) } = \gamma, so we can write

\gamma_{R} = \gamma \cdot \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) } }

This means that we can write the momentum for ball R in the y-direction as

p(R)_{y} = m(R) u(R)_{y} = \gamma_{R} m_{0} u(R)_{y}

p(R)_{y} = \gamma \cdot \frac{ 1 }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) } } \cdot m_{0} \cdot \frac{ u_{0} }{ \gamma }

\boxed{ p(R)_{y} = \frac{ m_{0}u_{0} }{ \sqrt{ ( 1 - u_{0}^{2}/c^{2} ) } } \text{ (8) } }

Comparing this to Equ. (7), the equation for p(B)_{y}, we can see that they are equal, as required.

So, we have proved that, to conserve momentum, we need mass to be a function of speed, and specifically that

\boxed{ m = \frac{ m_{0} }{ \sqrt{ (1 - u^{2}/c^{2}) } } }

Where u is the speed of the ball in a particular direction in frame S.

Read Full Post »

There has been quite a bit of mention in the media this last week or so that it is 100 years since Albert Einstein published his ground-breaking theory of gravity – the general theory of relativity. Yet, there seems to be some confusion as to when this theory was first published, in some places you will see 1915, in others 1916. So, I thought I would try and clear up this confusion by explaining why both dates appear.

Albert Einstein in Berlin circa 1915 when his General Theory of Relativity was first published

Albert Einstein in Berlin circa 1915/16 when his General Theory of Relativity was first published

From equivalence to the field equations

Everyone knew that Einstein was working on a new theory of gravity. As I blogged about here, he had his insight into the equivalence between acceleration and gravity in 1907, and ever since then he had been developing his ideas to create a new theory of gravity.

He had come up with his principle of equivalence when he was asked in the autumn of 1907 to write a review article of his special theory of relativity (his 1905 theory) for Jahrbuch der Radioaktivitätthe (the Yearbook of Electronics and Radioactivity). That paper appeared in 1908 as Relativitätsprinzip und die aus demselben gezogenen Folgerungen (On the Relativity Principle and the Conclusions Drawn from It) (Jahrbuch der Radioaktivität, 4, 411–462).

In 1908 he got his first academic appointment, and did not return to thinking about a generalisation of special relativity until 1911. In 1911 he published a paper Einfluss der Schwerkraft auf die Ausbreitung des Lichtes (On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light) (Annalen der Physik (ser. 4), 35, 898–908), in which he calculated for the first time the deflection of light produced by massive bodies. But, he also realised that, to properly develop his ideas of a new theory of gravity, he would need to learn some mathematics which was new to him. In 1912, he moved to Zurich to work at the ETH, his alma mater. He asked his friend Marcel Grossmann to help him learn this new mathematics, saying “You’ve got to help me or I’ll go crazy.”

Grossmann gave Einstein a book on non-Euclidean geometry. Euclidean geometry, the geometry of flat surfaces, is the geometry we learn in school. The geometry of curved surfaces, so-called Riemann geometry, had first been developed in the 1820s by German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. By the 1850s another German mathematician, Bernhard Riemann developed this geometry of curved surfaces even further, and this was the Riemann geometry textbook which Grossmann gave to Einstein in 1912. Mastering this new mathematics proved very difficult for Einstein, but he knew that he needed to master it to be able to develop the equations for general relativity.

These equations were not ready until late 1915. Everyone knew Einstein was working on them, and in fact he was offered and accepted a job in Berlin in 1914 as Berlin wanted him on their staff when the new theory was published. The equations of general relativity were first presented on the 25th of November 1915, to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. The lecture Feldgleichungen der Gravitation (The Field Equations of Gravitation) was the fourth and last lecture that Einstein gave to the Prussian Academy on his new theory (Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Sitzungsberichte, 1915 (part 2), 844–847), the previous three lectures, given on the 4th, 11th and 18th of November, had been leading up to this. But, in fact, Einstein did not have the field equations ready until the last few days before the fourth lecture!

The peer-reviewed paper of the theory (which also contains the field equations) did not appear until 1916 in volume 49 of Annalen der PhysikGrundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie (The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity) Annalen der Physik (ser. 4), 49, 769–822. The paper was submitted by Einstein on the 20th of March 1916.

The beginning of Einstein's first paper on general relativity, which was received by Annalen der Physik on the 20th of March 1916 and

The beginning of Einstein’s first peer-reviewed paper on general relativity, which was received by Annalen der Physik on the 20th of March 1916

In a future blog, I will discuss Einstein’s field equations, but hopefully I have cleared up the confusion as to why some people refer to 1915 as the year of publication of the General Theory of Relativity, and some people choose 1916. Both are correct, which allows us to celebrate the centenary twice!

You can read more about Einstein’s development of the general theory of relativity in our book 10 Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of Reality. Order your copy here

Read Full Post »

A student asked me last week if I could explain the difference between time dilation in Special Relativity (SR) and that in General Relativity (GR), so here is my attempt at doing so. Time dilation in SR comes about when something travels near the speed of light, and is due to the Lorentz transformations which ensure that experiments in any inertial frame are indistinguishable from each other.

I have already derived the Lorentz Transformations from first principles in this blog, and these equations are at the heart of SR, and show why time dilation occurs when one travels near the speed of light. In this blog here, I worked through some examples of time dilation in SR. But, what about time dilation in GR?

How does time dilation come about in GR?

As I have already explained in this blog here, Einstein’s principle of equivalence tells us that whatever is true for acceleration is true for a gravitational field. So, to see how gravity affects time the easiest way is to consider how time would be affected in an accelerating rocket.

We will consider a rocket in empty space, away from any gravitational fields, which is accelerating with an acceleration g. We will have two people in the rocket, Alice and Bob. Alice is at the top end of the rocket, the nose end. Bob is at the bottom end of the rocket, where the tail is. Alice sends two pulses of light, one at time t=0, and the second one at a time t= \Delta \tau_{A} later. They are received at the back of the rocket by Bob; the first pulse is received when the time is t=t_{1}, and the second one when the time is t=t_{2} = t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B}, where \Delta \tau_{B} is the time interval between flashes as measured by Bob.

This is illustrated in the figure below.

We can see how time dilation comes about in GR by considering a rocket accelerating in space with an acceleration g, and a light flashing at the top of the rocket and being received at the bottom

We can see how time dilation comes about in GR by considering a rocket accelerating in empty space with an acceleration g, and a light flashing from Alice at the front-end of the rocket and being received at the back-end by Bob.

We will set it up so that Bob’s position at time t=0 when the first flash is emitted by Alice is z_{B}(0)=0, and so his position at any other time is given by
z_{B}(t) = \frac{1}{2}gt^{2} \text{ (Equ. 1) }

(this just comes from Newton’s 2nd equation of motion s=ut + \frac{1}{2}at^{2}, see my blog here which derives those equations).

The position of Alice will just be Bob’s position plus the distance between them, which we will call h (the height of the rocket), so
z_{A}(t) = h + \frac{1}{2}gt^{2} \text{ (Equ. 2) }

We will assume that the first pulse takes a time of t=t_{1} to travel from Alice to Bob. The second pulse is emitted by Alice at a time \Delta \tau_{A} after the first pulse, this is the time interval between each light pulse that Alice sends. This second pulse is received by Bob at a time of t_{2} = t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B}, where \Delta \tau_{B} is the time interval between pulses as measured by Bob using a clock next to him.

When the first pulse leaves Alice her position is z_{A}(0), which from equation (2) is h, as she is at the top of the rocket. When Bob receives the pulse at time t=t_{1} his position will be z_{B}(t_{1}) which, from equation (1) is z_{B}(t_{1}) = \frac{1}{2} gt_{1}^{2}. So, the distance travelled by the pulse is going to be
z_{A}(0) - z_{B}(t_{1})= ct_{1} \text{ (Equ. 3) }

as the speed of light is c and it travels for t_{1} seconds. Because the rocket is accelerating, the distance travelled by the second pulse will not be same (as it would be if the rocket were moving with a constant velocity). The distance travelled by the second pulse will be less, and is given by
z_{A}(\Delta \tau_{A}) - z_{B}(t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B}) = c(t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B} - \Delta \tau_{A}) \text{ (Equ. 4) }

We can use Equations (1) and (2), which give expressions for z_{B} \text{ and } z_{A} as a function of t, to put in the values that z_{A} \text{ and } z_{B} would have when t = \Delta \tau_{A} for z_{A} and (t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B}) for z_{B} respectively.

Substituting from Equations (1) and (2) into Equation (3) we have
z_{A}(0) = h, \; \; z_{B}(t_{1}) = \frac{1}{2}gt_{1}^{2}

which makes equation (3) become
h - \frac{1}{2}gt_{1}^{2} = ct_{1} \text{ (Equ. 5) }

Doing the same kind of substitution into equation (4) we have
z_{A}(\Delta \tau_{A}) = h + \frac{1}{2}g \left( \Delta \tau_{A} \right)^{2} \rightarrow h

z_{B}(t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B}) = \frac{1}{2}g(t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B})^{2} \rightarrow \frac{1}{2}gt_{1}^2 +gt_{1} \Delta \tau_{B}

assuming that we can ignore terms in (\Delta \tau_{A})^{2} \text{ and } (\Delta \tau_{B})^{2}

Substituting these expressions into equation (4) gives
h - \frac{1}{2}gt_{1}^{2} - gt_{1} \Delta \tau_{B} = c(t_{1} + \Delta \tau_{B} - \Delta \tau_{A}) \text{ (Equ. 6) }

We now subtract equation (6) from (5) to give
gt_{1} \Delta \tau_{B} = c \Delta \tau_{A} - c \Delta \tau_{B} \text{ Equ. (7) }

Re-arranging equation (5) as \frac{1}{2}gt_{1}^{2} +ct^{1} -h and using the quadratic formula to find t_{1} we can write that
t_{1} = \frac{ -c \pm \sqrt{ c^{2} + 2gh } }{ g } \rightarrow \frac{ -c + \sqrt{ c^{2} + 2gh } }{ g }

(we can ignore the negative solution because the time is always positive). We will next use the binomial expansion to write
\sqrt{ c^{2} + 2gh } \approx c ( 1 + \frac{gh}{ c^{2} } )

(where we have ignored terms in \left( \frac{2gh}{c^{2}} \right)^{2} and higher in the Binomial expansion), and so we can write for t_{1}
t_{1} \approx \left( \frac{ -c + c \left( 1 + \frac{gh}{ c^{2} } \right) }{ g } \right) \rightarrow gt_{1} = c \left( \frac{gh}{ c^{2} } \right)

Substituting this expression for gt_{1} into equation (7) we now have
c \left( \frac{gh}{ c^{2} } \right) \Delta \tau_{B} = c \Delta \tau_{A} - c \Delta \tau_{B}

We can cancel the c in each term and bringing the terms in \Delta \tau_{B} onto one side and the term in \Delta \tau_{A} on the other side we have
\Delta \tau_{B} \left( 1 + \frac{ gh }{ c^{2} } \right) = \Delta \tau_{A}

and so
\Delta \tau_{B} = \frac{ \Delta \tau_{A} }{ \left( 1 + \frac{ gh }{ c^{2} } \right) }

and using the binomial expansion for (1 + gh/c^{2})^{-1} (and ignoring terms in \left( \frac{ gh }{ c^{2} } \right)^{2} and higher), we can finally write
\boxed{ \Delta \tau_{B} = \Delta \tau_{A} \left( 1 - \frac{ gh }{ c^{2} } \right) \text{ (Equ. 8) } }

Because \frac{gh}{c^{2}} is always positive, this means that \Delta \tau_{B} is always less than \Delta \tau_{A}, or to put it another way the time interval as measured by Bob at the back-end of the rocket will always be less than the time interval measured by Alice where the light pulses were sent. This means that Bob will measure time to be going at a slower rate than Alice, Bob’s time will be dilated compared to Alice.

From the principle of equivalence, whatever is true for acceleration is true for gravity, so if we now imagine the rocket stationary on the Earth’s surface, with the top end in a weaker gravitational field than the bottom end, we can see that a gravitational field will also lead to pulses arriving at Bob being measured closer together than where they were emitted by Alice. So, gravity slows clocks down!

A very important difference between time dilation in SR and time dilation in GR is that the time dilation in GR is not symmetrical. In SR, both observers in their respective inertial frames think it is the other person’s clock which is running slow. In GR, both Alice and Bob will agree that it is Bob’s clock which is running slower than Alice’s clock.

In a future blog I will do some calculations on this effect in different situations, but as you can see from Equation (8), the size of the dilation depends on the acceleration g and the difference in height between A \text{ and } B. I will also discuss whether it is time dilation due to GR or time dilation due to SR which affect the satellites which give us GPS the more, as both effects have to be taken into account to get the accuracy we seek in the GPS position.

Read Full Post »

Next year, 2015, marks the centennial of Einstein’s theory of gravity, what we now call the General theory of Relativity (or just “General Relativity” – “GR”). It is widely recognised as one of the greatest achievements in science, and when Arthur Eddington validated one of its predictions in 1919 Einstein was catapulted to the status of an international star. It is often said that, whereas Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity (or “special relativity”) would have been thought of by someone else had Einstein not come up with it, general relativity was so far ahead of its time that we may still be waiting for it if it were not for Einstein’s unparalleled genius.

A portrait of Albert Einstein from around the period that he started developing his theory of gravity, General Relativity.

A portrait of Albert Einstein from around the period that he started developing his theory of gravity, General Relativity.

As it turns out, the development of Einstein’s new theory of gravity was not an easy one. Over the course of several blogs I will trace this tortuous path, which took the best part of ten years, mainly because he had to learn the mathematics of curved space and Tensor calculus to be able to express his ideas in equations. Today I will discuss the beginnings of GR, and in particular what we now call Einstein’s “principle of equivalence”, which he thought of in 1907.

Einstein’s 1905 Special theory of Relativity

I have already blogged about Einstein’s ground-breaking Special theory of Relativity here. Just to recap, based on two assumptions

  1. There is no experiment one can do to distinguish between one inertial (non-accelerating) frame of reference and another
  2. The speed of light is constant in all inertial (non-accelerating) frames of reference

Einstein was able to show that these two postulates require that strange things happen to space and time when one travels an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Lengths get shorter, and time passes more slowly. One of the other consequences of this theory is that Einstein predicted that no information can travel faster than the speed of light.

Einstein soon realised, after he had developed his theory, that Newton’s theory of gravity was in violation of special relativity because it violates both of the postulates on which special relativity is based. In Newton’s theory of gravity, the gravitational force between two objects acts instantaneously. So, according to Newton, if the Sun were to disappear, we would instantly notice its absence (the Earth would move in a straight line rather than continue in its orbit).

Secondly, you could have two inertial (non-accelerating) frames of reference in two different gravitational fields (e.g. one on the surface of the Earth and the other on the surface of the Moon), and a simple experiment like the swinging of a pendulum would yield a different result. This is because the force of gravity (which, along with the length of the pendulum’s string, determines its period of motion) would be different in the two places.

Einstein’s “happiest thought”

In 1907 Einstein was still working in obscurity in the Patent Office in Bern. Although his special theory of relativity had been published two years before, it was yet to have received much attention. It wasn’t until 1908 that he would get his first academic appointment. In his largely boring patent clark job, Einstein had allowed his mind to wander just as he had done leading up to his miraculous year of 1905. This time, it was in pondering how he could fit Newton’s theory of gravity into his own special relativity. One day he had what he would later refer to as the “happiest thought of my life”. In a lecture on the origins of general relativity which he gave at Glasgow University in June 1933 (“The Origins of the General Theory of Relativity”), he expressed this 1907 thought as

If a person falls freely he will not feel his own weight

Very few of us have experienced free-fall, but most of us have been in a lift (elevator). Right at the start, when the lift starts moving, we temporarily feel heavier and our stomach may feel as if it is sinking. When we slow down at the top of the lift’s travel we temporarily experience the opposite, we feel lighter and our stomach may feel as if it is about to hit our diaphragm!

What Einstein realised is that, if a person were in a lift and the cable were to snap so that the lift fell freely towards the Earth, that person would feel weightless whilst the lift was falling. Their feet would come away from the floor of the lift, and if they took e.g. coins out of their pocket, those coins would not fall towards the floor of the lift but instead would appear to “float” next to the person.

Einstein's "principle of equivalence" states that being in a lift (elevator) which is falling freely feels the same as being in empty space - you would feel weightless

Einstein realised in 1907 that being in a lift (elevator) which is falling freely would feel the same as being in empty space – you would feel weightless.

Einstein next illustrated his absolute genius – he went from this idea, which is fairly specific, to the much more general principle of equivalence – which states that:

there is no experiment you can do to distinguish between the effects of a uniform gravitional field and that of uniform acceleration

Einstein's "happiest thought", his principle of equivalence, simply states that being in a uniform gravitational field feels the same as accelerating in empty space. The consequences of this idea are far reaching.

Einstein’s “happiest thought” led to his principle of equivalence, which simply states that being in a uniform gravitational field feels the same as accelerating in empty space. They cannot be distinguished from each other. The consequences of this idea are profound and far reaching.

The first mention of what would become “General Relativity”

Einstein was under pressure from his German editor to write up a review of his principle of special relativity, and so in late 1907 he wrote an article entitled “Über das Relativitätsprinzip und die aus demselben gezogenen Folgerungen”
(On the Relativity Principle and the Conclusions Drawn from It) which appeared on the 4th of December 1907 in the journal Jahrbuch der Radioaktivität. In a section of this review article he included some ideas as to what would happen if he were to generalise his special theory of relativity to include the effects of gravity. He noted a few consequences (without going into the details as he had yet to work them out) – gravity would alter the speed of light and hence cause clocks to run more slowly (i.e. gravity would slow down time). He even postulated that generalising special relativity to include gravity may explain the drift in the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit, something which had been confusing astronomers for several decades.

Gravity bends light

One of the more celebrated predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is that gravity should bend light. As I mentioned above, in 1919 this was shown to be the case by England’s foremost theoretical astrophysicist of the day, Arthur Eddington. I will go into the details of what he measured in another blog in this series on general relativity, but to finish this part one I will explain how gravity bends light in Einstein’s model.

To understand how this happens, we have to go back to the principle of equivalence. Remember, this states that whatever is true inside a lift which is accelerating in empty space is also going to be true for a lift which is stationary in a uniform gravitational field.

Imagine that a beam of light enters the lift horizontally on the left hand side of the lift. Because the lift is accelerating, rather than follow a straight path across the lift, it will appear to follow a curve (actually a parabola), and it will exit at a lower point on the right hand side than where it entered (this is exactly the same kind of path as a ball would follow if it is projected horizontally from a platform e.g. 200m above the Earth’s surface).

Through the principle of equivalence, if a beam of light crossing an accelerating lift will follow a curve, so will a beam of light crossing a stationary lift which is in a gravitational field. So, gravity should bend light!

Light traversing a lift which is accelerating will appear to bend (in fact it will follow a parabolic path). Because of the principle of equivalence, light should be similarly affected by gravity.

Light traversing a lift which is accelerating will appear to bend (in fact it will follow a parabolic path). Because of the principle of equivalence, light should be similarly affected by gravity.

As Einstein developed the mathematics of his general theory he was able to work out precisely how much a given gravitational field should bend light, and his predicted amount was found to be true for the Sun in a celebrated experiment in 1919 by Arthur Eddington.

In part two of this blog I will discuss some of the mathematical obstacles Einstein faced in bringing his general theory of relativity to fruition.

Read Full Post »

With the announcement earlier in the week of what appears to be direct evidence for cosmic inflation, I ended up getting involved in a discussion on one of John Gribbin‘s FaceBook posts with a gentleman who said “the Big Bang theory will be discredited in the next few years” (or words to that effect), and that the “Steady State theory” was the correct cosmological model.

I was a little surprised that there were even (presumably intelligent and informed) people who still felt that the steady state theory had any credence left. So, rather than answer this gentleman in private, I thought I would do a brief series of blogs on why we think that the big bang theory provides a more correct model of the Universe than the steady state theory.

I should remind readers (all two of you!), a theory is never complete. It is always a work in progress, and this is as true of the big bang theory as of any other theory. As Karl Popper said, it does not matter how many times a theory is confirmed, one robust refutation of that theory and it needs to be revised and/or abandoned. Cosmologists have been trying to test predictions of the big bang theory since Lemaître first proposed it in the 1920s, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The expanding Universe

The expansion of the Universe was observationally discovered by Edwin Hubble and his observing assistant Milton Humason in 1929. What Hubble and Humason found was that more distant galaxies appeared to be moving away faster than nearer galaxies. The recession velocity was determined by the Doppler shift in the spectral lines of the galaxies and was a pretty robust result. The distances were a little less robust, as there was no reliable way to determine the distances to the galaxies Hubble included in his study. However, since then we have been able to use the reliable method of Cepheid variables to determine the distances to a large number of galaxies. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope (named, of course, after Edwin Hubble) was able to observe Cepheid variable stars out to large distances in the 1990s. This was a Hubble Key Project. The relationship between the distance of a galaxy and how quickly it is moving away from us, the so-called Hubble law, is now well established.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

Edwin Hubble (left) and Milton Humason, who discovered the expansion of the Universe.

In the 1910s Vesto Slipher, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona had found that from a sample of 25 “spiral nebulae” (as they were then known), 22 appeared to be moving away from us with 3 moving towards us, based on the Doppler shift in their spectral lines. Slipher noted that there was something strange about this, but never made the connection to an expanding Universe.

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble's original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The diagram of distance (x-axis) versus recession velocity (y-axis) from Hubble’s original 1929 paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Although Hubble himself never actually said it, the most natural interpretation of the Hubble law is that the Universe is expanding. It is not that the galaxies are rushing through space, but rather that space itself is expanding. A galaxy which is twice as far away as a given galaxy will move away twice as quickly if space is uniformly expanding. Naturally, if space is getting bigger then it would have been smaller in the past – so Hubble’s discovery lent natural support to the emerging idea of a Universe which started out small and is getting bigger.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space which is expanding.

In an expanding Universe, more distant galaxies move away quicker than nearer ones because of the expansion of space. The galaxies themselves are not moving through space, it is space itself which is expanding.

Einstein’s biggest blunder

Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity, a radically different approach to understanding gravity, in 1916. This theory describes gravity as a bending of space and time, rather than the classical idea of gravity that Newton had developed in 1666. In 1917, when Einstein applied his new equations to the Universe, he found that it predicted a dynamic (expanding or contracting) Universe. But, at the time the general consensus was that the Universe was static, so Einstein introduced a fudge-factor, the “cosmological constant”, to give his equations a static solution. When the expansion of the Universe was later discovered by Hubble and Humason, Einstein purportedly said that the cosmological constant was “the biggest blunder of my life”, as he could have predicted the expansion of the Universe some 12 years before hand.

de Sitter, Friedmann and Lemaître

Two years after Einstein introduced his cosmological constant, in 1919, Dutch mathematician and physicist Willem de Sitter produced a solution to Einstein’s equations which had no matter but just the cosmological constant. This predicted an expanding Universe, but nobody took much notice as everyone knew the Universe contained matter.

In 1922, Russian cosmologist Alexander Friedmann produced the first solutions to Einstein’s equations which contained matter but which also predicted that the Universe might expand. Unfortunately for Friedmann, he died in 1925 and his work went largely unnoticed at the time, probably because he only published in Russian.

A few years later, in 1927, Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître independently came up with the same idea as Friedmann. He was aware of Slipher’s work on the redshift of spiral nebulae, and conjectured that it might be a sign of the Universe expanding. He published his work in an obscure Belgian scientific journal, so it too was ignored. But then, renowned cosmologist Sir Arthur Eddington published a long commentary of Lemaître’s paper in the widely read Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, propelling Lemaître’s work to prominence. Einstein became aware of Lemaître’s work, but was not convinced by it.

Then, in 1931, Lemaître published a letter in the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, outlining his ideas on cosmic expansion in some detail. In this letter he suggested that the Universe had begun in what he called a primordial atom.


Newspapers around the World picked up on the story, and the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline

Lemaître suggests one, single, great atom, embracing all energy, started the Universe.

Einstein was won over, and in 1932 he and de Sitter published a paper of a model we now call the Einstein-de Sitter model, in which they stated that the correct cosmological model was one which would just about keep on expanding to infinity, but would take an infinite amount of time to do so and would never re-collapse.

The Steady State Theory

In the 1940s a fierce opponent to Lemaître’s “primordial atom” theory would emerge, Sir Fred Hoyle. In part 2 of this blog next week I will talk about his competing theory, the “Steady State theory”, and Hoyle’s on-going battle in the 1940s and 1950s with George Gamow, who became the chief champion of the “primordial atom” theory.

Read Full Post »