With COVID-19 putting a damper on social activity, “the gang” doesn’t get together very often, but we still gather occasionally (and carefully). One of the times recently I got into how, even though we’re all sitting essentially motionless in a living room, we’re moving through time at the speed of light. I explained why that was, and they found it pretty cool.
Then I ran into someone online who just couldn’t wrap his head around it — just couldn’t accept it (despite explaining in detail and even providing some links). Physics is sometimes challenging to our daily perceptions of reality!
However in this case, it’s just a matter of some simple geometry.
Back in 2015, to celebrate Albert Einstein’s birthday, I wrote a month-long series of posts about Special Relativity. I still regard it as one of my better efforts here. The series oriented on explaining to novices why faster-than-light travel (FTL) is not possible (short answer: it breaks reality).
So no warp drive. No wormholes or ansibles, either, because any FTL communication opens a path to the past. When I wrote the series, I speculated an ansible might work within an inertial frame. A smarter person set me straight; nope, it breaks reality. (See: Sorry, No FTL Radio)
Then Dr Sabine Hossenfelder seemed to suggest it was possible.
I was gonna give us all the day off today, honestly, I was! My Minnesota Twins start their second game in about an hour, and I really planned to just kick back, watch the game, have a couple of beers, and enjoy the day. And since tomorrow’s March wrap-up post is done and queued, more of the same tomorrow.
But this is too relevant to the posts just posted, and it’s about Special Relativity, which is a March thing to me (because Einstein), so it kinda has to go here. Now or never, so to speak. And it’ll be brief, I think. Just one more reason I’m so taken with matrix math recently; it’s providing all kinds of answers for me.
Last night I realized how to use matrix transforms on spacetime diagrams!
Speaking of Special Relativity, back when I wrote the SR series, one topic I left along the wayside was the concept of the spacetime interval. It wasn’t necessary for the goals of the series, and there’s only so much one can fit in. (And back then, the diagrams I wanted to make would have been a challenge with the tool I was using.)
But now that we’re basking in the warm, friendly glow of March Mathness and reflecting on Special Relativity anyway, it seems like a good time to loop back and catch up on the spacetime interval, because it’s an important concept in SR.
It concerns what is invariant to all observers when both time and space measurements depend on relative motion.
Earlier, in the March Mathness post, I mentioned Albert Einstein was born on March 14th. That’s also Pi Day, which deserved its own pi post (about pizza pi), so old Al had to wait for me to address a topic I’ve needed to address for several months.
To wit: Some guy was wrong on the internet.
That guy was me.
Back in 2015 (also celebrating Einstein’s birthday), I wrote a series of posts exploring Special Relativity. Near the end of the series, writing about FTL radio, I said (assuming an “ansible” existed) I wasn’t convinced it violated causality if the frames of reference were matched.
Over the last five weeks I’ve tried to explain and explore Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. We’ve seen that motion, velocity, simultaneity, length, and even time, are all relative to your frame of reference and that motion changes the perceptions of those things for observers outside your frame.
All along I’ve teased the idea that the things I’m showing you demonstrate how the dream of faster-than-light (FTL) travel is (almost certainly) impossible. Despite a lot of science fiction, there probably isn’t any warp drive in our futures.
Now it’s (finally) time to find out just exactly why that is.
The main topic this week was how simultaneity is relative to your frame of reference. How there are (virtual) lines of simultaneity where all points on some line — at all distances from you — share the same moment in time. For any instant you pick, that instant — that snapshot — includes all points in your space.
A line of simultaneity freezes the relative positions of objects at a given moment — which enables distance measurements. Simple example: When their watches both read 12 noon, Al and Em were 30 miles apart. A more mathematical example uses x, y, & z (& t), but it amounts to the same thing: a coordinate system.
The gotcha is that simultaneity and coordinate systems are relative when motion is involved!
Last time our friend Al used lasers and timers to create a regular grid-like map of the space and time near him. The map allowed him to assign space-time coordinates to events in his frame of reference (even if it takes time for him to see light from those events).
An important concept is the idea of simultaneity — of events in different locations happening at the same moment according to some observer (who has to wait for the event’s light to reach their eye).
So far the events weren’t moving relative to us. What if we — or the events, same thing — are moving (and moving fast)? It turns out, this changes the picture!
In the last two posts I’ve explained how Special Relativity is about relative motion between two frames of reference, and that the motion involved is constant, straight line motion that allows us to view either frame as the “moving” one or the “standing still” one.
Today I’m going to dig a little bit deeper into the idea of relative motion and what that involves for actions within a constantly moving frame of reference versus what observers in a different frame perceive. In other words: trains, planes, and automobiles.
(Warning: this gets a little math-y, but you can ignore those bits.)
Okay, if you’ll all take your seats and quiet down we can begin. I’ll keep this very short today because I know it’s Spring and many of you are eager to get out there and walk Frisbees and throw dogs… I mean — well you know what I mean.
The point is, that in keeping with spring, I’m aiming to keep these posts light and breezy. Unfortunately, I have terrible aim, so we’ll see how that goes. I never met a paragraph I couldn’t make longer!
Ready? Let’s go…