What is Special Relativity?

Time and space are the same thing, and it's all relative?

When we read What is LHC:ATLAS?, I mentioned that since the speed of the particles approaches the speed of light, we have to account for the relativistic effects.

"However, we do have Galilean relativity which has worked perfectly fine for me" you might inject, and you'd be right. Galilean relativity serves us just well in most of our lives. In fact, for speeds far below the speed of light Einstein relativity and Galilean relativity are nearly indistinguishable from each other. [1]

However, in certain circumstances such as when you're using a particle accelerator, or even something as mundane as using GPS, Galilean relativity is not enough, and you have to use Einstein's relativity.

"Okay, so I need this Einstein's relativity. What is it?" you ask begrudgingly.

Einstein's special relativity (refered to just as special relativity from here)[2] can be derived entirely from two fundamental postulates.

The Fundamental Postulates

  1. All intertial reference frames are equivalent.

This version of the postulate, however, follows a somewhat circular argument as an object which does not accelerate does not have a net force, however, the only way we know that it doesn't have a net force is by checking if the object accelerates.

This inconsistency lead Einstein to develop his general theory of relativity which solves the problem by working for any reference system, and not just inertial systems. However, if you ignore this detail, you'll be fine.

  1. The speed of light in vacuum, cc, is a universal constant in all reference frames.

While today, we know this to be true as we have measured it empirically,[3][4] Einstein couldn't possibly have known this at his time, you rebut. And you'd be right. In fact, it's possible to derive that given that light is a electromagnetic wave that light must travel at cc from Maxwell's equations. However, Einstein describes in his notes from 1949 himself finding it as a solution to an apparent paradox he stumbled upon when he was 16. This approach leads to the stronger claim that cc is constant in all reference frames.


Standard Configuration

The standard configuration is a configuration of coordinate systems often used in special relativity to ease, and somewhat normalize the notation.

The standard configuration consists of an rest system SS with coordinates (x,y)(x,y)[5], and another system SS' with coordinates (x,y)(x',y') moving with vv along the xx-axis with respect to SS.[6] Furthermore, at t=0t=0, we set x=x=0x=x'=0.

This setup is illustrated below.


Four vectors

Since handling the individual dimensions separately can quickly become a mess, it's an often used convention to combine the 3+13+1 dimensions into a four vector with the unit vectors:


The index of the time dimension can wary between authors. One convention is to use the zeroth dimension as the time dimension, so the unit vectors become


which gives us the four vector

a=a=03aαeα.\textbf{a}=\sum_{a=0}^3 a^\alpha \textbf{e}_\alpha.

By using Einstein notation, we get

a=aαeα\textbf{a}=a^\alpha \textbf{e}_\alpha

where it's assumed we sum over repeated greek letters.

We have adopted the convention where we denote four vectors with bold face such as, a\textbf{a}, while we continue to denote three vectors with an arrow such as, a\vec{a}.

For some more syntatic sugar, let

ηαβ=eαeβ=[1000010000100001].\eta_{\alpha \beta} = \textbf{e}_\alpha \cdot \textbf{e}_\beta = \begin{bmatrix} -1&0&0&0\\ 0&1&0&0\\ 0&0&1&0\\ 0&0&0&1 \end{bmatrix}.

In which case

ab=ηαβaαbβ.\textbf{a}\cdot \textbf{b}=\eta_{\alpha \beta} a^\alpha b^\beta.

The reason we have a 1-1, and not 11 in the time dimension is to avoid messing up causality which the philosophers tell me is a good thing.

One neat thing about using four vectors is that the dot product between any two four vectors (or a chain of them) is invariant. So

ab=ab.\textbf{a} \cdot \textbf{b} = \textbf{a}' \cdot \textbf{b}' .

Lorentz Transformation

In the standard configuration, the componentwise Lorentz transformation is given by

a0=γ(a0βa1),a1=γ(a1βa0),a2=a2,a3=a3.\begin{aligned} &a'^{0} = \gamma(a^{0} - \beta a^1 ), \\ &a'^{1} = \gamma(a^{1} - \beta a^0 ), \\ &a'^{2} = a^2, \\ &a'^{3} = a^3. \\ \end{aligned}


Time Contraction

While deriving every formula of special relativity is beyond the scope of this project, deriving time contraction seems worthwhile due to it's broad applicability.

Let's consider a light-clock consisting of two perfect mirrors put parallel with a distance LL to each other, and let a foton travelling at speed cc bounce between the mirrors.

Obviously, the time it takes for the foton to bounce from the bottom mirror to the top mirror and back again is going to be

t=2Lct = \frac{2L}{c}

because time equals distance over speed.

This can be rewritten as

L=ct2L = \frac{ct}{2}

Now, let's consider the same system, but this time the mirrors move along the xx-axis with velocity vv while the foton continous to bounce between the mirrors.

Let the time it takes for the foton to complete one full bounce be tt', and let the distance the mirrors have moved before the foton comes back be 2s2s. Then we know that

2s=vt.2s = v\cdot t'.

So we can write s=vt2s=\frac{v\cdot t'}{2}.

We know that the foton travels along hh twice for a total distance of 2h2h, so we find that

2h=ct.2h=c\cdot t.

We now have all the sides in a right-angled triangled, and per pythagoras, we know that

(vt2)2+(ct2)2=(ct2)2.\big(\frac{vt'}{2}\big)^2 + \big(\frac{ct}{2}\big)^2 = \big(\frac{ct'}{2}\big)^2.

Which gives us

c2t2=c2t2v2t2.c^2t^2 = c^2 t'^2 - v^2t'^2.

By dividing by c2c^2, we find

t2=t2v2t2c2=t2(1v2c2).t^2 = t'^2 - \frac{v^2t'^2}{c^2}=t'^2 \big( 1 - \frac{v^2}{c^2} \big).

Isolating tt', we find

t=t11v2c2.t' = t \frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}}.

Or when γ=11v2c2\gamma=\frac{1}{\sqrt{1-\frac{v^2}{c^2}}},

t=tγ.t' = t \gamma.

Relativistic Mechanics

Just like classcal mechanics, we still have conservation of momemtum and total energy in relativistic collisions.

Example: Compton Spread

We consider a system consisting of a photon and an electron. In the initial state, the photon has a four momentum vector pγ\textbf{p}_\gamma, and the electron is at rest, pe=mec(1,0)\textbf{p}_e = m_e c(1,\vec{0}).

In the final state, the photon has the four momentum vector pˉγ\bar{\textbf{p}}_\gamma, and the electron has the four momentum vector pˉe\bar{\textbf{p}}_e.

The setup is illustrated below.

image of setup

This is an example of Compton spread. The angle of spreading θ\theta depends on the wavelength of the incoming photon with the relation


where λc=hmec\lambda_c = \frac{h}{m_e c}.

This chapter has leaned on the content from "Speciel Relativitetsteori" by Ulrik Uggerhøj whenever a source has not been cited.

  1. Note: While there'll always be a small factor of difference between Einstein and Galilean relativity, for small velocities, the difference will be within the margin of error. ↩︎

  2. We use special and not general relativity because it's simpler, and sufficient for our purposes, and also because I'm taking a course in special, and not general relativity. ↩︎

  3. Actually, we're so sure about cc being an universal constant that we have defined the meter to be derived from cc which has the interesting consequence that every time we attempt to 'measure' cc, we are actually just measuring the accuracy of the equipment. ↩︎

  4. There are several different ways of measuring cc including some which can be done at home. One interesting way of measuring cc is by using the aberration of light first discovered by James Bradley who found that light travels approximately 10,210 times faster than the Earth around the sun. ↩︎

  5. Note: While this is done in 2+12+1 dimensions, the exact same principles apply in 3+13+1 dimensions; you just tag along a zz axis. ↩︎

  6. Note: The prime symbol (') has nothing to do with differentiation in special relativity. Except when it does, but in those rare cases the author usually marks it clearly to avoid ambiguity. ↩︎

continue reading

The Higgs Boson
The hunt that could make or break the standard model.
Exploring The Universe With LHC
How can LHC test astrophysics phenomena? How is relativity used to calculate collisions at LHC? Are you better than a computer at finding the Higgs boson? We answer all of this, and much more in this interactive experience.