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Old 11th May 2022, 12:37 PM   #1
W.D.Clinger
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The Relativity of Simultaneity

The relativity of simultaneity is a consequence of Einstein's special theory of relativity.

In the Newtonian conception of space and time, time is both absolute and independent of space. In Newtonian physics, for example, whether two events happen at the same time is an objective question, completely independent of your point of view: They do or they don't, and that's the end of the matter.

Special relativity tells us the Newtonian conception of time isn't quite right. According to special relativity, time is neither absolute nor fully independent of space. That linkage between time and space is why, when we change our point of view via the Lorentz transformation known as a Lorentz boost, we must transform our time coordinates as well as our spatial coordinates.

One consequence of relativity's merger of time and space into a unified spacetime is that simultaneity is not absolute. If two distinct events are simultaneous in one coordinate system (of the special type known as an inertial reference frame), then there are equally valid coordinate systems of that type in which those events do not occur at the same time. Whether those events are simultaneous is therefore not an objective question. Its answer depends upon the coordinate system you prefer to use.


Outline of this essay
  1. Precise statements of the relativity of simultaneity.
  2. Proof that the relativity of simultaneity is a consequence of basic principles of special relativity.
  3. Empirical evidence for the relativity of simultaneity.
  4. Question:
    What do "observers" have to do with the relativity of simultaneity?
    Answer: Hardly anything.

    The more interesting question is why so many expositions of the relativity of simultaneity mention observers. The answer to that more interesting question is mostly historical.
  5. Question:
    Is the relativity of simultaneity a perceptual phenomenon?
    Answer: No.

    The more interesting questions are
    • Why do some people make the mistake of thinking it's just a perceptual phenomenon?
      Partly because some people overlook the difference between "subjective" and "perceptual", but there's a little more to it than that.
    • Why do a few expositions of the relativity of simultaneity mention perception?
      A very few expositions mention perception for some good reason, but sloppy exposition is the more common reason.


I will use the phrase "Recall that...", together with hyperlinks, to state some basic principles and definitions of special relativity. Readers who are unfamiliar with those principles should follow the links.

Recall that special relativity applies only to flat (Minkowski) spacetime, which I will assume throughout this essay. (The relativity of simultaneity becomes more general in general relativity, but that generalization involves substantially more advanced mathematics. The basic ideas of special relativity are accessible to anyone with a solid grasp of high school algebra and an interest in physics.)

For the reasons given in Part 3, I will assume special relativity is a correct theory. My goal here is to explain how the relativity of simultaneity follows from that theory.


Part 1: Precise statements of the relativity of simultaneity

Recall that a Cartesian coordinate system for 3-dimensional Euclidean space assigns numbers (coordinates) x, y, and z to every point of the space in such a way that the distance ds between two points of the space satisfies the equation
ds2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2
where dx is the difference between the x coordinates of the points, dy the difference between the y coordinates, and dz the difference between the z coordinates. That equation is of course the Pythagorean theorem generalized to three dimensions. Taking the positive square root of both sides of that equation defines the Euclidean metric (also known as the Euclidean distance function).

Recall that, in special relativity, an inertial reference frame is a 4-dimensional coordinate system for Minkowski spacetime that assigns numbers t, x, y, and z to every point of the space in such a way that the spacetime interval between two points is given by the equation
ds2 = − c2 dt2 + dx2 + dy2 + dz2
where dt is the difference between the t coordinates of the points, dx the difference between the x coordinates, dy the difference between the y coordinates, and dz the difference between the z coordinates. That equation is also known as the Minkowski pseudo-metric or (by a minor abuse of terminology) the Minkowski metric. An inertial reference frame is said to be inertial because the straight line obtained by interpolating between the coordinates of two distinct points represents a path through spacetime of some particle moving at constant velocity, under its own inertia, hence free from acceleration.

Recall that the signs of the terms on the right hand side of that equation form a metric signature. The spoiler explains my preference for the (− + + +) signature I'm using throughout this essay.
Originally Posted by Wikipedia
In general, but with several exceptions, mathematicians and general relativists prefer spacelike vectors to yield a positive sign, (− + + +), while particle physicists tend to prefer timelike vectors to yield a positive sign, (+ − − −).
The relativity of simultaneity doesn't have much to do with particle physics. The (− + + +) signature is more common in books on relativity, such as Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler.


Recall that, with the metric signature I'm using (which is the opposite of the metric signature used by this Wikipedia page), a negative value of the spacetime interval is said to be timelike, a positive spacetime interval is said to be spacelike, and a zero value is lightlike.
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is timelike, then the straight line interpolated between the two events represents a path that could be followed by some unaccelerated massive particle traveling at less than the speed of light.
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is spacelike, then the straight line interpolated between the two events represents a path that no particle could follow without exceeding the speed of light, which (according to the theory of relativity) is impossible.
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is lightlike, then the straight-line path between the events could only be followed by a massless particle traveling at the speed of light.
Here are a couple of facts that can be proved using essentially the same technique I'll use to prove the relativity of simultaneity. I'm stating them here because some readers will be reassured by the absoluteness of the first fact, while the second fact states a relativity of spatial co-location analogous to the relativity of simultaneity.
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is timelike, then one of the events happens before the other, and all inertial reference frames agree on which event happens first.
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is timelike, then there are inertial reference frames in which both events have the same spatial coordinates but different time coordinates, and there are also inertial reference frames in which the events have different spatial coordinates as well as different time coordinates.
Generalizing those facts to general relativity is complicated by the fact that general relativity is consistent with causal loops. (There are no causal loops in the flat Minkowski spacetime of special relativity.)

With all that background out of the way, we can now give two precise statements of the relativity of simultaneity.


Relativity of Simultaneity (Version A)
If E1 and E2 are distinct events that occur at the same time in some inertial reference frame R, then there is another inertial reference frame R' in which E1 and E2 occur at different times.
Relativity of Simultaneity (Version B)
If events E1 and E2 are separated by a spacelike interval, then there is an inertial reference frame R1 in which E1 occurs before E2, an inertial reference frame R2 in which E2 occurs before E1, and an inertial reference frame R0 in which E1 and E2 occur at the same time.

Part 2: Proof that the relativity of simultaneity is a consequence of basic principles of special relativity

I'll put the proofs in spoilers, because some readers might want the fun of proving these things themselves, while others might be intimidated by the sight of a mathematical proof.

As a warmup, I'll start with a couple of help theorems (lemmas).


Lemma. If E1 and E2 are distinct events that occur at the same time in some inertial reference frame R, then E1 and E2 are separated by a spacelike interval.
Proof: Let the coordinates of E1 in R be (t1, x1, y1, z1), and let the coordinates of E2 in R be (t2, x2, y2, z2). Since E1 and E2 occur at the same time in R, t1 = t2. The coordinate-wise differences are
  • dt = t1 − t2 = 0
  • dx = x1 − x2
  • dy = y1 − y2
  • dz = z1 − z2
so the spacetime interval is
ds2 = − c2 dt2 + dx2 + dy2 + dz2 = dx2 + dy2 + dz2
That's a sum of non-negative terms. E1 and E2 are distinct events, so at least one of those terms must be positive, so the spacetime interval is positive.



Lemma. If Version B is true, then Version A is true.
To prove this lemma, we get to assume (temporarily!) that Version B is true.

To prove Version A follows, let E1 and E2 be distinct events that occur at the same time in some inertial reference frame R. By the lemma proved above, E1 and E2 are separated by a spacelike interval. Version B therefore tells us there is an inertial reference frame R1 in which E1 occurs before E2.



The following lemma is a fact about Cartesian coordinate systems for 3-dimensional space, with the time coordinate just going along for the ride, but everyone should read the last two sentences of the spoiler.

(ETA: My original statement of this lemma was incorrect. I think it's okay now.)

Lemma. If E1 and E2 are events with coordinates (t1, x1, y1, z1) and (t2, x2, y2, z2) in some inertial reference frame R, then there is an inertial reference frame R' in which E1 has coordinates (t1, 0, 0, 0) and E2 has coordinates (t2, x2', 0, 0), where x2' > 0.
Recall that every inertial reference frame can be transformed into any other inertial reference frame via the coordinate transformations of the Poincaré symmetry. Similarly, every coordinate system that can be obtained by applying those coordinate transformations to an inertial reference frame yields another inertial reference frame.

The only coordinate transformations needed to prove this lemma are translations and rotations in space, which leave the time coordinate unchanged.

To transform R into R':
  • Translate the spatial origin of R to E1, leaving the time axis and time coordinate of E1 unchanged.
  • Rotate the spatial axes of that new coordinate system to align its positive x-axis to point along the straight line running from E1 to E2.
R' is the inertial reference frame that results from those two steps. E2 lies on the x-axis of R', so its y and z coordinates are zero.

Readers who don't follow or aren't convinced by the above might benefit from this exercise in visualization.
  • Grab a tape measure, some masking tape or thumbtacks, and a small rectangular box.
  • Go into a rectangular room, and mark a couple of spots on some of the room's furnishings with a thumbtack or bit of masking tape. Those two points in space represent the spatial locations of E1 and E2.
  • Use your tape measure to measure the distance from E1 to E2.
  • Select an accessible corner of the room to represent the origin of R.
  • Use your tape measure to measure how far E1 and E2 are from the walls that form the corner you selected and from the floor. Those six distances are the spatial coordinates of E1 and E2.
  • Compute the differences dx, dy, and dz of those coordinates.
  • Compute the sum of the squares of those differences.
  • If that sum does not match the square of the distance you measured from E1 to E2, to within measurement error, you've done something wrong. Try again.
  • Place the box snug in the corner you selected. The three edges of the box that touch the corner of the room represent the three axes of R that you're going to translate and then rotate.
  • Pick up the box and, holding its sides parallel to the walls and floor as it was when you picked it up, carry it to your point E1, so the corner of the box that was in the corner is touching E1. You have now translated the spatial origin of R to E1.
  • Continuing to hold that corner of the box at E1, rotate the box so the edge representing its x-axis points to E2. You have now demonstrated to yourself how the coordinate system R gets transformed into R'.
Here is an extremely important thing to note:
That coordinate transformation didn't change the location or orientation of anything that was in the room when you started.
Here is an extremely important thing for everyone to note:
The Poincaré transformations (which include the Lorentz transformations) do not change the location or orientation or relationships between any of the events that make up the spacetime manifold. The only thing those coordinate transformations do is to change the numbers we use when specifying the coordinates of events.



Recall that the spacetime interval between two events is an invariant, which is to say that spacetime interval has the same value in all inertial reference frames. Applying that fact to the previous lemma, the spacetime interval between E1 and E2 has the same value in R as in R'.


Now, finally, I can prove my more general statement of the relativity of simultaneity.

Relativity of Simultaneity (Version B)
If events E1 and E2 are separated by a spacelike interval, then there is an inertial reference frame R1 in which E1 occurs before E2, an inertial reference frame R2 in which E2 occurs before E1, and an inertial reference frame R0 in which E1 and E2 occur at the same time.
Suppose events E1 and E2 are separated by a spacelike interval in some inertial reference frame R'.

If E1 and E2 have the same time coordinate in R', then let R' be the R0 we need to find.

If the time coordinate of E1 in R' is greater than the time coordinate of E2, then we can swap the names of those events and start over.

In what follows, therefore, we may assume the time coordinate of E1 in R' is less than the time coordinate of E2.

Applying the previous lemma (while swapping the names of R and R'), we can transform the coordinates of those events to an inertial reference frame R in which E1 has coordinates (t1, 0, 0, 0), E2 has coordinates (t2, x2, 0, 0), and x2 > 0. Because the spacetime interval is invariant,
ds2 = − c2 dt2 + dx2 > 0
where dt = t2 − t1 and dx = x2, which implies
c2 (t2 − t1)2 < x22
which implies
c (t2 − t1) < x2
(because t1 < t2 and x2 > 0).

Now we can design a Lorentz transformation that will give us an inertial reference frame R0 in which events E1 and E2 have the same time coordinate. Let
v = c2 (t2 − t1) / x2
Multiplying both sides by x2:
v x2 = c2 (t2 − t1) = c (c (t2 − t1)) < c x2
so v < c.

Recall that the most interesting Lorentz transformation is

t' = γ (t − vx/(c2))
x' = γ (x - vt)
y' = y
z' = z
where |v| < c and γ = 1/√(1 - (v2/(c2))). Applying that Lorentz transformation to our particular v and the coordinates of events E1 and E2, we get

t1' = γ t1
x1' = γ (- vt1)
y1' = y1 = 0
z1' = z1 = 0

t2' = γ (t2 − vx2/(c2))
x2' = γ (x2 - vt2)
y2' = y2 = 0
z2' = z2 = 0
Plugging the value of v into the equation for t2', we get
t2' = γ (t2 − c2 ((t2 − t1) / x2) x2 / (c2))
= γ (t2 − (t2 − t1))
= γ t1
= t1'
so E1 and E2 have the same time coordinates in this new inertial reference frame, which we can take to be the R0 we had to find.

To prove the existence of inertial reference frames R1 and R2 in which E1 occurs before E2 or E2 occurs before E1, we can start with R0 and drive the time coordinates apart by applying the same kind of Lorentz transformation, once with some arbitrary positive v < c and again with some arbitrary negative v with |v| < c.

That's just some tedious high school algebra, so I'll leave it as an exercise for highly skeptical readers.




Part 3: Empirical evidence for the relativity of simultaneity

Part 2 proved the relativity of simultaneity without making any assumptions beyond basic concepts of special relativity and high school algebra. If the parts of special relativity that are used in those proofs are real, then the relativity of simultaneity must be real.

The only way the relativity of simultaneity could fail is for some of special relativity's basic ideas to be wrong.

That is extremely unlikely. Relativity is one of the most thoroughly tested theories in all of modern science. The parts of special relativity used in the above proofs have been subjected to many experimental and observational tests. Because special relativity is a special case of general relativity, all of the experimental and observational tests of general relativity also count as evidence for the correctness of special relativity, and therefore count as evidence for the relativity of simultaneity.

Although it is easy to give examples of experimental tests that the entire theory of relativity has passed, it is much harder to give specific examples of experiments that offer a direct demonstration of the relativity of simultaneity. The reason for that should be obvious. The relativity of simultaneity basically says you can't find a demonstration of simultaneity that is independent of the arbitrary reference frame(s) you choose to use in a demonstration. Furthermore, the only way to demonstrate non-simultaneity as an absolute concept (independent of reference frame) is to use events that are separated by a timelike interval, which implies all reference frames will agree on which came first.


Part 4: What do "observers" have to do with the relativity of simultaneity?

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this essay don't mention observers at all. It was possible to state the relativity of simultaneity in mathematically precise form, and to give mathematically rigorous proofs of the relativity of simultaneity while assuming only basic principles of relativity.

That tells you the concept of "observers" is extraneous. There is no need to mention observers when discussing the relativity of simultaneity.

Yet many expositions of the relativity of simultaneity do talk about observers, especially when the exposition is aimed at a general audience.

Here is part of what a very good freshman-level textbook on special relativity has to say about observers:
Originally Posted by A P French
The literature of relativity is full of references to observers, whose role is to make judgments on the positions and times at which events occur....Almost always the observer is portrayed as being at rest with respect to one or other of two frames; by imagining an observer in each frame, one can picture an actual process for obtaining two different space-time descriptions of the same event. All this seems both harmless and reasonable....Nevertheless, the use of this language contains certain dangers....

To prevent or dispel some possible misconceptions, we add the following specific comments.

1. Although an event is by definition represented by a single point in space-time, it may nevertheless leave an enduring record of itself....

2. ...an observer is not necessarily limited to making measurements in a reference frame to which he himself is attached....Very often, however, one will see statements such as the following: "An observer A in frame S observes that an event occurs at position x' and time t' by an observer B in frame S'." What is really being said here is just that the event has space-time coordinates (x, t) in one frame and (x', t') in the other....

3. The last and most treacherous aspect of introducing an observer attached to a given frame of reference is that one may get the impression that this observer has some kind of bird's-eye view of the whole of his reference frame at a given instant. This is entirely false....One must be immediately on guard if one reads such colloquialisms as: "An observer attached to frame S sees the event as happening at position x and time t," or "To an observer in frame S it looks as if..." Almost always, these statements are simply statements about the space-time coordinates of a particular event as established by measurements in frame S....

The purpose of this discussion, then, is to focus the attention where it belongs—on the specification of point events according to the measures of space and time in given frames of reference....

One of the dangers not mentioned in that quotation is the danger of thinking an observer is forced to reason in terms of an inertial reference frame in which the observer is at rest. Not so. Observers are free to think in terms of any inertial frame they find convenient, and may transform back and forth between frames whenever they like. Someone traveling on a train, for example, may prefer to think of himself as being at rest while reading a book or talking to another passenger, but prefer to think of himself as moving when he looks out the window at passing scenery. The fact that you can think in terms of whatever inertial frame you like is literally the first postulate of special relativity.


Part 5: Is the relativity of simultaneity a perceptual phenomenon?

No. Emphatically no.

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this essay were able to state and to prove the relativity of simultaneity without mentioning anything remotely connected to perception. That tells you perception has nothing at all to do with the relativity of simultaneity.

Why, then do some people make the mistake of thinking the relativity of simultaneity has something to do with perception?

Partly because some people overlook the difference between "subjective" and "perceptual". The relativity of simultaneity tells us simultaneity is either absolute and objective (in the case of events that are separated by a timelike interval) or completely relative and subjective (in the case of events separated by a spacelike interval). (In the latter case, the subjectivity comes from the fact that everyone gets to select his own preferred frame.) Perception isn't involved with either situation.

Another reason people make this mistake is the sloppy talk about observers that so many authors throw into discussions of relativity to make the exposition feel less formal and intimidating to a general audience. Even Einstein's thought experiments talked about observers, although Einstein's descriptions of those experiments were nowhere near as sloppy as some of the expositions you'll find on today's World-Wide Web.

Here is an example, written by a computer programmer who co-founded Autodesk, showing how excessive talk about observers within a somewhat confused exposition of the relativity of simultaneity can lead to a gratuitous (but fairly harmless) mention of perception:
Originally Posted by John Walker
Technical note: Some physicists prefer to reserve the term “relativity of simultaneity” for cases where observers are in motion relative to one another and the effects of special relativity obtain. In a case like the example above, where all the observers and sources are at rest with respect to one another, it is possible, using Einstein's definition of simultaneity, for spatially separated observers to synchronise their clocks and define simultaneity in terms of the spacetime interval between events. When observers are in relative motion, however, it is impossible, even in principle, to synchronise their clocks, so no definition of simultaneity is possible. But to me, the phrase “relativity of simultaneity” means precisely what it says, notwithstanding relativistic effects or their absence. In this case, three observers of the same two events see three different orders in which they appeared to occur from their particular vantage points; hence their perception of simultaneity is relative even though it is entirely due to light travel time instead of motion.

Although I'm a bit critical of Walker's exposition, my search for popular expositions of the relativity of simultaneity that described the effect as "perceptual" or a mere matter of perception turned up many that were far worse than Walker's, including several written by anti-relativity cranks.

Last edited by W.D.Clinger; 11th May 2022 at 01:09 PM. Reason: corrected one of the lemmas; see ETA
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Old 11th May 2022, 12:47 PM   #2
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No it's not.
















Seriously, well done, man. Clears up a ton from the other discussion.
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Old 11th May 2022, 01:26 PM   #3
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Quote:
no particle could follow without exceeding the speed of light, which (according to the theory of relativity) is impossible...
Are tachyonic particles not possible under relativity? I thought it was the transition from tardyonic to tachyonic that was impossible.
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Old 11th May 2022, 06:27 PM   #4
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Thanks for this. Most of the OP is way beyond my understanding, though.
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Old 11th May 2022, 06:50 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by W.D.Clinger View Post
The relativity of simultaneity is a consequence of Einstein's special theory of relativity.

In the Newtonian conception of space and time, time is both absolute and independent of space. In Newtonian physics, for example, whether two events happen at the same time is an objective question, completely independent of your point of view: They do or they don't, and that's the end of the matter.

Special relativity tells us the Newtonian conception of time isn't quite right. According to special relativity, time is neither absolute nor fully independent of space. That linkage between time and space is why, when we change our point of view via the Lorentz transformation known as a Lorentz boost, we must transform our time coordinates as well as our spatial coordinates.

One consequence of relativity's merger of time and space into a unified spacetime is that simultaneity is not absolute. If two distinct events are simultaneous in one coordinate system (of the special type known as an inertial reference frame), then there are equally valid coordinate systems of that type in which those events do not occur at the same time. Whether those events are simultaneous is therefore not an objective question. Its answer depends upon the coordinate system you prefer to use.

<snipped to save paper . . . >
I appreciate your effort, but here’s my first stonewall (there are others) . . .

I don’t accept that time is an actual thing to be independent of or unified with anything. Unless I can be convinced time is an actual thing, I’m stuck right there.
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:14 PM   #6
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I think that the baseline for this discussion should be:

1. Acceptance of the postulates of Special Relativity and;
2. Acceptance that the postulates of Special Relativity imply that a Lorentz Transform is the correct way to translate between inertial frame.

Every theory in science is challengeable and if anyone wants to challenge 1 and/or 2 above that is fine, but for clarity it might be better to challenge these in a different thread.

And this is just a suggestion and not telling anyone what they should say or not, especially as this is not my thread.

Postulates of Special Relativity

1. First postulate (principle of relativity)

The laws of physics take the same form in all inertial frames of reference.
2. Second postulate (invariance of c)

As measured in any inertial frame of reference, light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity c that is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body. Or: the speed of light in free space has the same value c in all inertial frames of reference.
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:18 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by ynot View Post
I appreciate your effort, but here’s my first stonewall (there are others) . . .

I don’t accept that time is an actual thing to be independent of or unified with anything. Unless I can be convinced time is an actual thing, I’m stuck right there.
Feel free to come up with a similarly precise, accurate, and predictively powerful model of reality, that treats time differently.
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:30 PM   #8
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Actually, I guess the starting point for all of this is the fact that c is constant. Necessarily, then, time isn't how we think it is.

I realize that I don't really know how exactly people (Einstein?) first even came up with such a counterintuitive idea in the first place.

(Don't want to derail the thread, and I haven"t looked, maybe Google might have a ready answer: but still, if anyone actually knows already, perhaps a single quick post in response won't hurt: How did this weird-sounding idea, that c is constant, first even come to be conceived of?)
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:39 PM   #9
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There's an explanation for that in the book I'm reading which I have mentioned a couple of times in our recent discussions. It's to do with Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, but it's a bit complex for me to go into right now.
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:43 PM   #10
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Suppose that Bob and Alice, instead of clapping, each emit a photon.

Bob and Carol are standing near each over, each motionless with respect to the other.

Alice flies close by at considerable speed. Each Alice and Bob emit a photon.

Carol is standing midway between Bob and Alice at the time Bob emits the photon.

Carol registers photons from Bob and Alice at the same time. This implies that Bob and Alice emitted the photons simultaneously.

Now transform the frame where Alice is motionless and Bob and Carol zip by her at considerable speed.

In this frame Carol still registers the photons at the same time.

But in the transformed coordinates Carol was not midway between Bob and Alice at the time Bob emitted the photon.

So in this frame they did not emit the photons simultaneously.

It wouldn't take any more than high school maths to establish that this really does follow from the basic postulates and the acceptance of a Lorentz Transform as the correct way to transform coordinates.

Last edited by Robin; 11th May 2022 at 08:54 PM.
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Old 11th May 2022, 08:51 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
There's an explanation for that in the book I'm reading which I have mentioned a couple of times in our recent discussions. It's to do with Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, but it's a bit complex for me to go into right now.
Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism are considerably harder to grasp than special relativity, they certainly stopped me in my tracks. Which is why I suggested taking the postulates as given for the purposes of this discussion.

I believe that there was already experimental confirmation of the constancy of the speed of light by the end of the 18th century, even before the Aether had been dealt a death blow, or at least results which made more sense under the assumption that the speed of light was constant for all inertial observers.

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Old 11th May 2022, 10:38 PM   #12
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Originally Posted by Robin View Post
Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism are considerably harder to grasp than special relativity, they certainly stopped me in my tracks. Which is why I suggested taking the postulates as given for the purposes of this discussion.

I believe that there was already experimental confirmation of the constancy of the speed of light by the end of the 18th century, even before the Aether had been dealt a death blow, or at least results which made more sense under the assumption that the speed of light was constant for all inertial observers.
Greene has a quite succinct explanation, but it isn't the focus of the chapter so he doesn't go into a lot of detail.
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Old 11th May 2022, 11:01 PM   #13
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Originally Posted by Chanakya View Post
Actually, I guess the starting point for all of this is the fact that c is constant. Necessarily, then, time isn't how we think it is.

I realize that I don't really know how exactly people (Einstein?) first even came up with such a counterintuitive idea in the first place.

(Don't want to derail the thread, and I haven"t looked, maybe Google might have a ready answer: but still, if anyone actually knows already, perhaps a single quick post in response won't hurt: How did this weird-sounding idea, that c is constant, first even come to be conceived of?)
The negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment was a big clue.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel...ley_experiment
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Old 12th May 2022, 12:20 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
There's an explanation for that in the book I'm reading which I have mentioned a couple of times in our recent discussions. It's to do with Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, but it's a bit complex for me to go into right now.

Thanks for the hint. The suggests a specific direction in which I might nose around a bit, online, to see if something readily comes up.



Originally Posted by Pixel42 View Post
The negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment was a big clue.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel...ley_experiment

Right. I've read about that experiment I remember (perhaps even actually studied it in physics class, I don't rightly remember that), but all of that had gone clean out of my mind, until I read up on your link again. Yep, like you say, that must have been a big clue.

Actually, although it turned out to be false, the ether (aether?) theory does sound perfectly plausible, in terms of being intuitive. How utterly crazy the nature of reality turned out to be, following on that experiment that junked the aether thing and was instrumental in eventually bringing in relativity. (And of course, that was an age innocent of the utter madness that is QM.)
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Old 12th May 2022, 05:49 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by sphenisc View Post
Are tachyonic particles not possible under relativity? I thought it was the transition from tardyonic to tachyonic that was impossible.
I'll have to let the physicists answer that. For the purposes of my exposition, it's mostly a matter of whether a consensus of physicists regards the speed limit as part of special relativity.

Feel free to replace the highlighted part of
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is spacelike, then the straight line interpolated between the two events represents a path that no particle could follow without exceeding the speed of light, which (according to the theory of relativity) is impossible.
with the highlighted part of
  • If the spacetime interval between two events is spacelike, then the straight line interpolated between the two events represents a path that no particle could follow without exceeding the speed of light, which no particle has ever been seen to do.

Originally Posted by Robin View Post
Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism are considerably harder to grasp than special relativity, they certainly stopped me in my tracks. Which is why I suggested taking the postulates as given for the purposes of this discussion.
Maxwell's equations played an important role in the history of special relativity. Einstein knew he was onto something important when he understood how the magnetic field is explained by the Lorentz transformation.

Originally Posted by Wikipedia
The theory of special relativity plays an important role in the modern theory of classical electromagnetism. It gives formulas for how electromagnetic objects, in particular the electric and magnetic fields, are altered under a Lorentz transformation from one inertial frame of reference to another. It sheds light on the relationship between electricity and magnetism, showing that frame of reference determines if an observation follows electrostatic or magnetic laws. It motivates a compact and convenient notation for the laws of electromagnetism, namely the "manifestly covariant" tensor form.

....In fact, half of Einstein's 1905 first paper on special relativity, "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," explains how to transform Maxwell's equations.
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Old 12th May 2022, 01:42 PM   #16
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Einstein himself wrote a book, appropriately titled “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”, that discusses a lot about how he came up with the idea and walks through a lot of his thought experiments. It’s available on Amazon )or your bookstore of choice).

I found it useful and informative, and would recommend it for anyone with an interest.


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Old 12th May 2022, 03:31 PM   #17
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Originally Posted by Hellbound View Post
Einstein himself wrote a book, appropriately titled “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”, that discusses a lot about how he came up with the idea and walks through a lot of his thought experiments. It’s available on Amazon )or your bookstore of choice).

I found it useful and informative, and would recommend it for anyone with an interest.


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I found that book really useful too. He pitched it at a general audience without dumbing it down too much. No bowling balls on trampoline style analogies.

But others have said the read it and found it difficult to follow but could more easily read other books that I found challenging.

It seems that finding the right popular exposition of scientific ideas is a matter of finding the one that works for you.

I would recommend the Einstein book, I found it engaging and simplifies the concepts without too much dumbing down and, well he is Einstein and he ought to know.

The AP French one that WD Clinger recommends above is also good for a text book style treatment of it.

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Old 12th May 2022, 06:24 PM   #18
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I find it helps me to make these things concrete with numbers, at least initially. It isn't any kind of rigorous proof but it helps to get across how the transforms work.

I created a Desmos graph for the Alice, Bob and Carol. I have made it Alice and Carol who emit the photons and Bob as the observer, co-moving with Alice, just because it made it neater to have A,B,C across the page representing the events of A=Alice emits a photon, B=Bob checks his watch and sees 0 seconds and C=Carol emits a photon.

The first graph is Alice's inertial frame, the second is Carol's inertial frame

The coordinates are (t,x) and note these are the other way round to the normal convention for Cartesian coordinates of (horizontal,vertical)

The world lines are Alice, Bob and Carol respectively left to right.

The vertical axis is time and the the horizontal axis is the distance in the direction Carol is moving relative to Alice and Bob. It is scaled so that the speed of light forms a 45 degree angle.

The distances on the graph can be metres, in which case the time axis is in 1/c seconds, or the distances can be light seconds, in which case the vertical axis is in seconds.



The graph, for anyone interested is here: https://www.desmos.com/calculator/41jsgfyhen

You can calculate the spacetime interval and confirm it does not change between the frames (note that the speed of light is set to 1 for this, hence the c2 term is left out of the spacetime interval calculation in Desmos)

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Old 12th May 2022, 07:10 PM   #19
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I'd like to see someone who knows what they're talking about provide a response to this, if possible:

Originally Posted by ynot View Post
I appreciate your effort, but here’s my first stonewall (there are others) . . .

I don’t accept that time is an actual thing to be independent of or unified with anything. Unless I can be convinced time is an actual thing, I’m stuck right there.
I know that there were recent clickbaity headlines saying that time might not exist, but they were all about a new book explaining Loop Quantum Gravity (which I might have to get hold of a copy of), one aspect of which is that time is an emergent property rather than an inherent characteristic of reality.
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Old 12th May 2022, 07:28 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
I'd like to see someone who knows what they're talking about provide a response to this, if possible:
Quote:
Unless I can be convinced time is an actual thing, I’m stuck right there.
Not trying to speak for others but I think what most of the people in this thread that are mistakenly identified as "think time travel is possible" are actually trying to communicate that we simply don't know much about time, most of what we assume is just that, an assumption.

About the only thing I can think of that we can really demonstrate about it's nature is that we can exchange distance for time. That's what the Twin Paradox demonstrates. One twin chooses to experience more time, the other more distance.
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Old 12th May 2022, 07:29 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
I'd like to see someone who knows what they're talking about provide a response to this, if possible:



I know that there were recent clickbaity headlines saying that time might not exist, but they were all about a new book explaining Loop Quantum Gravity (which I might have to get hold of a copy of), one aspect of which is that time is an emergent property rather than an inherent characteristic of reality.
I would be interested in the answer. I suspect it might be, no one knows at this point in time.

I would just point out that we don't need to assume that time is an actual thing to be independent of or unified with anything for the purposes of this thread.

So that stone wall isn't a stone wall.

I am guessing that none of us assume that time is an actual thing to be independent of or unified with anything.

We are merely open to the possibility that science will show us what time is.

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Old 12th May 2022, 07:45 PM   #22
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I've heard that entropy defines the arrow of time.

Let's see if my explanation of entropy passes muster.

There is only one way that you can stand a pencil on its point. You have to arrange the pencil so its centre of balance is precisely over its point. You can rotate the pencil around its axis, but the number of states that the pencil can be balanced is limited to those in which its centre of balance is directly above its point. But there are a lot of ways in which a pencil can be not on its point. It can be on its side, pointing in any direction, it can be angled on a slope, it can even be on its flat end. The pencil on its point is in a state of low entropy, and its natural inclination is for it to fall over, into a state of higher entropy. This tendency for a system to change to higher entropy states is what defines the arrow of time.

This explanation is almost certainly inadequate, and I look forward to finding out why.
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Old 12th May 2022, 08:16 PM   #23
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Originally Posted by Robin View Post
Suppose that Bob and Alice, instead of clapping, each emit a photon.

Bob and Carol are standing near each over, each motionless with respect to the other.

Alice flies close by at considerable speed. Each Alice and Bob emit a photon.

Carol is standing midway between Bob and Alice at the time Bob emits the photon.

Carol registers photons from Bob and Alice at the same time. This implies that Bob and Alice emitted the photons simultaneously.

Now transform the frame where Alice is motionless and Bob and Carol zip by her at considerable speed.

In this frame Carol still registers the photons at the same time.

But in the transformed coordinates Carol was not midway between Bob and Alice at the time Bob emitted the photon.

So in this frame they did not emit the photons simultaneously.

It wouldn't take any more than high school maths to establish that this really does follow from the basic postulates and the acceptance of a Lorentz Transform as the correct way to transform coordinates.
But what is Ted doing while all this is happening?
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Old 12th May 2022, 08:57 PM   #24
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Originally Posted by shemp View Post
But what is Ted doing while all this is happening?
Time travelling with Bill
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Old 12th May 2022, 08:58 PM   #25
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
I've heard that entropy defines the arrow of time.

Let's see if my explanation of entropy passes muster.

There is only one way that you can stand a pencil on its point. You have to arrange the pencil so its centre of balance is precisely over its point. You can rotate the pencil around its axis, but the number of states that the pencil can be balanced is limited to those in which its centre of balance is directly above its point. But there are a lot of ways in which a pencil can be not on its point. It can be on its side, pointing in any direction, it can be angled on a slope, it can even be on its flat end. The pencil on its point is in a state of low entropy, and its natural inclination is for it to fall over, into a state of higher entropy. This tendency for a system to change to higher entropy states is what defines the arrow of time.

This explanation is almost certainly inadequate, and I look forward to finding out why.
No, actually it is a pretty good explanation.

(PS I kind of assumed you meant you hadn't explained it well.

If you meant that then I disagree.

If you meant that entropy was not necessarily a good explanation for the arrow of time then I might agree.)

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Old 12th May 2022, 10:38 PM   #26
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I meant both so it's nice to hear that I succeeded at one of them, at least. I find that one good way to test my understanding of a subject is to try to explain it to someone else.

So why is entropy not a good explanation for the arrow of time?
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Old 12th May 2022, 11:30 PM   #27
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Originally Posted by arthwollipot View Post
I meant both so it's nice to hear that I succeeded at one of them, at least. I find that one good way to test my understanding of a subject is to try to explain it to someone else.

So why is entropy not a good explanation for the arrow of time?
Basically there is the "why does it go that way?" Question. If the laws of physics are reversible then why can't entropy increase in the other direction, timewise?

If you take the basic laws of Newtonian Physics and change the delta t to a minus delta t you can also see entropy increase.

If you model a heat engine step by step and about half way to equilibrium you multiply the.delta t by -1 it just continues to run down to equilibrium.

So that is the part which goes against the idea of time as a dimension.
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Old 13th May 2022, 12:11 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by Robin View Post
Basically there is the "why does it go that way?" Question. If the laws of physics are reversible then why can't entropy increase in the other direction, timewise?

If you take the basic laws of Newtonian Physics and change the delta t to a minus delta t you can also see entropy increase.

If you model a heat engine step by step and about half way to equilibrium you multiply the.delta t by -1 it just continues to run down to equilibrium.

So that is the part which goes against the idea of time as a dimension.
I was under the impression that entropy wasn't time-reversible. If you take a jar full of ball bearings (low entropy) and pour it out on the floor so that they go everywhere (high entropy), it won't look at all the same if you run that film in the projector backwards, unlike, say, an electromagnetic interaction which is time-reversible.
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Old 13th May 2022, 12:15 AM   #29
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Originally Posted by Robin View Post
Suppose that Bob and Alice, instead of clapping, each emit a photon. ...
The way that I heard of this thought experiment is that Tom is standing next to a railway track and he is exactly half way between two light sources A and B which are also next to the railway track. Dick is on a train that is moving from light source A to light source B.

At the instant when Dick is directly adjacent to Tom, both light sources flash simultaneously (in Tom's reference frame). Since Tom is exactly the same distance from both light sources, he will see the light from both sources at the same instant and will conclude that both light sources flashed simultaneously.

However, because Dick is moving towards light source B, he will see B's flash before he see A flash. Since the speed of light is the same in both reference frames, Dick's (equally valid) conclusion is that light source B flashed before light source A.

I don't know what Harry was doing all this time.
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Old 13th May 2022, 12:24 AM   #30
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Brian Greene describes a peace treaty between the presidents of Forwardland and Backwardland. They only agree to a treaty if they sign the document simultaneously - neither wants to be the first to sign. They sit at either end of a table with a lamp placed directly in the middle. When the lamp goes on, they sign the document.

Now put the table, the presidents, and the lamp on a train, moving smoothly and steadily and undergoing no acceleration. By Einstein's principle of equivalence, no experiment done inside the train will produce any result that indicates that the train is moving (inertial reference frames are equivalent), so both presidents still see the light go on at the same time, and from their point of view the documents are signed simultaneously.

But from the point of view of a spectator on the platform as the train whizzes past, the president of Forwardland signs the document first, since she is moving towards the photons that are from her point of view coming towards her. She travels less distance before seeing the light than does the president of Backwardland, who is rushing away from the photons that the lamp emits. The citizens of Forwardland are outraged at being tricked and the war between the two countries continues.
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