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Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity

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Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity

Einstein's theory of special relativity is a scientific theory that focuses on how time, speed, and space interact and how the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames. The first step to take when studying Einstein's theory of special relativity is to study the two postulates that Einstein put forward for special relativity.

What are Einstein's two postulates about special relativity?

Einstein's theory of special relativity covers movement across colossal distances with a cosmic speed, the speed of light.

Einstein stated that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and the speed of light in a vacuum is constant regardless of the observer's speed. He backed up his theory with two simple postulates and cautious consideration of how measurements are made.

Einstein's first postulate

Einstein's first postulate is about reference frames. A reference frame is a viewpoint used to determine the movement of an object. According to the first postulate, all velocities are measured relative to some frame of reference.

So what are inertial frames of reference? An inertial frame of reference is a reference frame in which a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion continues at a constant speed in a straight line unless impacted by an outside force. This may sound familiar, since Newton's first law of motion says the same thing because it is based upon inertial frames of reference. Let's look at some examples.

  • If a car is going on a road, its motion is measured relative to the road it is going on.
  • If you throw a ball off a large cliff, the motion of the ball is measured relative to your standing point.

The laws of physics are the same and can be stated in much more simple forms in all inertial frames of reference than non-inertial ones.

Imagine you are in the back seat of a car, and the car is driving at a constant speed. The laws of physics appear to function the same way as when you're standing on the surface of the earth. Things get a little trickier when the car is moving.

F, the net force of an object, does not equal the multiplication of mass and acceleration (ma) in many instances like these. Instead, it equals ma plus a fictitious force. Imagine the car is going at a velocity of 10 km/h and you throw a ball inside the car with a velocity of 2 km/h. You will see the ball moving at a velocity of 2km/h while an observer standing on the side of the road will see the ball moving at a velocity of 12km/h.

The famous equation E = mc^2, which is discovered by using the formula for the force in a near light moving frame, is one of the most notable implications of this postulate.

Einstein's second postulate

Einstein's second postulate about the theory of special relativity is about the speed of light and it being a constant independent of the reference frame. Even though in the late 19th century the major tenets of classical physics predicted that light travels at c = 3.00 ⋅ 10^8 m/s in a vacuum, they didn't specify the frame of reference in which light has this speed.

There was a contradiction between this prediction and Newton's laws in which velocities add like simple vectors. If this were true, then the observer moving at a velocity of c would see light as stationary, which went against Maxwell's equations. So Einstein came to the conclusion that an object with mass can't travel at speed c.

As a result of this reasoning, light in a vacuum must always move at c relative to any observer. Maxwell's equations are correct, and Newton's addition of velocities is incorrect in the case of light.

The general outcome of the second postulate is that in a vacuum, the speed of light is constant at c = 3.00 ⋅ 10 ^ 8 m/s.

The speed of light is slower in matter, as the impact of the index of refraction from the law of refraction shows. Also, this is where special relativity is different from general relativity. Only unaccelerated motion is covered by special relativity, while accelerated motion is covered by general relativity.

What is time dilation, and length contraction?

Can time intervals or the distance traveled be different from one observer to another? Normally we expect the answer to be no, but in some circumstances, the answer may be yes to both of these questions.

Einstein's theory of special relativity, Exam's elapsed time, StudySmarterAn exam's elapsed time is the same for all students (observers), However, at relativistic speeds, the observer's relative velocity and the event being observed impact the elapsed time. flickr.com

Time dilation

Time dilation is a concept that occurs when one observer moves through space relative to another observer, causing time to flow more slowly. Let's imagine an observer is moving at v, and the proper time is Δt0, which is the time the observer measures at rest relative to the event being observed. This proper time is connected to the time Δt that an observer on Earth measures. You already know that c stands for the speed of light and is a constant that can be determined below. The equation below explains the relationship between them:

Where

Length contraction

When traveling at everyday speeds, observers can and will measure the length of a car journey the same, always independently of the velocity observers are traveling at. But that does not apply under relativistic speeds, which are close to the speed of light.

Under relativistic speeds, the length that an object is moving through is measured to be less than its proper length, this is called length contraction. The proper length (L0) is the length obtained when the distance between two points is measured by an observer who is at rest relative to both points. Take a look at the example below to get a better understanding of the concept:

Let's imagine a spaceship is observed by someone on Earth and travels at a velocity of 0.750c for 9.05µs from the moment it is spotted until it vanishes. It covers the following distance:


Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, Proper length, StudySmarterThe observer on Earth will observe the proper length, Camacho - StudySmarter Originals

This is relative to Earth. In the spaceship's frame of reference, its lifetime is Δt0:

In the question, it says 'to an observer on Earth' so 9.05µs is Δt and you need Δt0 to find the length from the spaceship's reference. As we saw before:

Let's put the knowns in place, to get

Now you can find the length relative to the observer inside the ship (L)

Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, length relative, StudySmarterThe observer in the spaceship will observe the length relative, Camacho - StudySmarter Originals

Finally, the distance between when the spaceship appears and when it vanishes, is determined by who is measuring it and how the observer moves relative to it.

Einstein's theory of relativity, Length contraction, StudySmarterWhile the distances are observed the same by all observers in everyday life, they can be observed differently in relativistic speeds. flickr.com

What is relativistic energy?

The law of the conservation of energy states that energy has many forms, and each form can be converted to another without being destroyed; the energy in a system remains constant.

Energy is still conserved relativistically if its definition is changed to include the possibility of mass converting to energy. If we define energy to include a relativistic element, Einstein demonstrated that the law of the conservation of energy can be applied relativistically, which led to the concepts of total energy and rest energy.

Total energy

Total energy E can be defined as

m is mass in kg.

c is the speed of light in m / s.

As you may remember we defined as:

v, is velocity in m / s.

You can see that E is related to relativistic momentum. But notice that if the velocity is zero, it will not equal zero but 1. Which will then be called rest energy rest energy.

Rest energy

The rest energy is actually defined as the famous equation below.

, is the rest energy in joules.

This is the correct version of Einstein's most famous equation, which demonstrated for the first time that energy is proportional to an object's mass when it is at rest. When energy is stored in an object, for example, its rest mass increases. This also suggests that energy may be released by destroying mass. Let's look at the example below to understand the concept better.

Calculate the rest energy of a 1 gram mass.

Solution:

Let's apply the equation.

In the question, m is given as 1 gram which is equal to 1 ⋅ 10^-3 kg.

Let's convert the unit to joules to see how much energy there is. We know that

So the result is

This is an enormous level of energy. It is about twice the amount of energy released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity, Mass-Energy conversion, StudySmarterBoth the Sun and a nuclear power plant convert mass into energy, Sun via nuclear fusion, and the power plant via nuclear fission. flickr.com

Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity - Key takeaways

  • Einstein's theory of special relativity is a scientific theory that focuses on how time, speed, and space interact and how the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames.
  • Einstein's first postulate upon which he based the theory of special relativity is about reference frames. Einstein's second postulate is about the speed of light.
  • Length contraction occurs when the length that an object moving on at relativistic speeds is measured to be less than its proper length.
  • Time dilation is a concept that occurs when one observer moves through space relative to another observer, causing time to flow more slowly.
  • Relativistic energy states that the energy is conserved relativistically if its definition is changed to include the possibility of mass converting to energy.

Frequently Asked Questions about Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity

Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference and that the speed of light in a vacuum is constant regardless of the motion of the observer.

The first postulate of Einstein’s theory of special relativity states that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference. The second postulate states that in a vacuum, the speed of light is constant at  c=3.00*10^8 m/s. 


According to special relativity, the speed of light is a limit that can be approximated but never exceeded by any object with mass. It is the source of one of the most famous equations in science, E=mc^2, which states that mass and energy are the same physical entity and can be transformed into one another.

Final Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity Quiz

Question

What does Einstein’s first postulate about the theory of special relativity propose?

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Answer

The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference.

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Question

What does Einstein's second postulate about the theory of special relativity propose?

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Answer

The speed of light is constant at c = 3.00 * 10 ^ 8 m / s in a vacuum.

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Question

A muon is observed by an observer on Earth and travels at a velocity of 0.620c for 10.0s from the moment it is spotted until it vanishes. Find the length relative to the observer.


Hint: Use the length contraction equation.

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Answer

1,460[km]

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Question

Calculate the rest energy of a 1.85 grams mass.

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Answer

1.665 * 10 ^ 14 [J]

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Question

Which of the following is true?

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Answer

Speed of light is constant in a vacuum regardless of the observer's speed.

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Question

Choose the correct answer.

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Answer

The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames

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Question

Which of the following is false?


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Answer

Newton's addition of velocities is correct in the case of light.

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Question

What is the symbol for the speed of light?

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Answer

 c

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Question

What is the value of the constant speed of light in a vacuum?


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Answer

3.00 * 10 ^ 8 m / s

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Question

What are the two types of relativistic energy?


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Answer

Total energy and rest energy.

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Question

What is the equation for calculating rest energy?


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Answer

E0=mc^2

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Question

Is energy conserved when converting from mass to energy?


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Answer

Yes

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Question

When an observer moves through space relative to another observer what happens for the observer on the move?


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Answer

Time flows more slowly

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Question

The proper length is the length obtained when the distance between two points is measured by an observer who is at rest relative to both points. True or false?


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Answer

True

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Question

The proper time is the time the observer measures at rest relative to the event being observed. True or false?


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Answer

 True

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