Practical Relativity: From First Principles to the Theory of Gravity

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But the theory of special relativity came first. It's special because it includes the "special case" where motion is uniform - that is, an object is traveling at a constant speed and in a straight line. This is referred to as "inertial frames of reference. Special relativity showed strange things like " moving clocks run slower, and moving objects are shorter " than everyday experience would suggest.

This states that energy and mass are equivalent. The general theory of relativity, on the other hand, handles "non-inertial frames of reference" - that is, situations that involve acceleration, or curves, like a bend in the road. It explains the "general case" of any motion and forms the basis of our understanding of gravity.

General relativity predicted radical things, such as that light is deflected by gravity. It also predicted black holes. It showed that space and time are malleable or flexible, and ever expanding. Which basically predicted that our universe was ever expanding. It's a shame that, by contrast, my brain has such trouble expanding.

The One Thing Everybody Should Know About Relativity

Perhaps I should smoke a pipe as Einstein did - he said smoking a pipe encouraged a "calm and objective" mood, which he would have needed to come up with his theories. It probably depends on what you put in the pipe, though. As you're probably starting to see, Einstein's theory of relativity is complex. It is so complex that no listicle could ever do it justice. Even if we listed all the salient points - one through 10, or whatever - you would still have to understand the words. And so, too, would I. Fortunately for us, the complexity of this theory has given rise to a cottage industry of all manner of people trying to explain it in short videos.


Chester's video has been shared more than 3 million times and it's great to watch. But - and this may just be me - even after watching it and other videos like it I'm still left with a hole in my head where I spent 7 minutes and 33 seconds scratching away at my ignorance. Einstein's theory of special relativity established a link between space and time.

So much is clear. And so is this: the universe has three space dimensions, and a fourth dimension which is time.

8 Ways You Can See Einstein's Theory of Relativity in Real Life | Live Science

Together they make the space-time continuum, or spacetime. This theory existed before Einstein's relativity. But the theory of general relativity describes the interaction between matter and spacetime, and how matter curves the spacetime field. In empty space, the spacetime field is flat.

But if there is an object with mass generating a gravitational field, it will curve spacetime. Physicists say that when this happens the "geometry of spacetime appears to curve. This is important for our understanding of how planets move through space. They orbit the sun on a curved path because the sun bends spacetime around it. Now, until Einstein came along and turned physics on its head, people had believed the passage of time was constant and unchanging.

Einstein saw things differently - he said the speed of light was constant, not time. Einstein was a radical, imaginative thinker. It's worth making the point here that he was a theoretical physicist. He viewed the world using his imagination and made predictions about things which are difficult to prove or disprove, and that's why, I imagine, we speak of his theories as being "accepted" theories. Research continues and occasionally the theories are challenged.

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This is one of the weirdest things. First, the laws of physics appear the same to all observers.

Second, he calculated that the speed of light — , miles per second , kilometers per second — is unchanging. Prior to Einstein, scientists believed that space was filled with luminiferous aether that would cause the speed of light to change depending on the relative motion of the source and the observer. As a result of these principles, Einstein deduced that there is no fixed frame of reference in the universe.

Everything is moving relative to everything else, hence Einstein's theory of relativity. It is known as special relativity because it applies only to special cases: frames of reference in constant, unchanging motion. In , Einstein published the general theory of relativity, which applies to frames that are accelerating with regard to each other.

Time does not pass at the same rate for everyone. A fast-moving observer measures time passing more slowly than a relatively stationary observer would. This phenomenon is called time dilation. A fast-moving object appears shorter along the direction of motion, relative to a slow-moving one. This effect is very subtle until the object travels close to the speed of light. Mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing.

Welcome to the first in our new monthly "Instant Expert" series. This month, astrophysicist Pedro Ferreira of the University of Oxford offers a concise, up-to-the minute summary of what a well-informed person should know about general relativity. Find out more about Instant Expert. Published in , it explains that what we perceive as the force of gravity in fact arises from the curvature of space and time.

Einstein proposed that objects such as the sun and the Earth change this geometry. In the presence of matter and energy it can evolve, stretch and warp, forming ridges, mountains and valleys that cause bodies moving through it to zigzag and curve. So although Earth appears to be pulled towards the sun by gravity, there is no such force. It is simply the geometry of space-time around the sun telling Earth how to move. The general theory of relativity has far-reaching consequences. It not only explains the motion of the planets; it can also describe the history and expansion of the universe, the physics of black holes and the bending of light from distant stars and galaxies.