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1

Special Relativity

www.curriculum-press.co.ukNumber 149

F actsheetP hysics

Special Relativity is about the idea that there can be no absolutemotion, you can only measure motion, length, mass and timedependent upon your position as an observer.The idea of mass – energy equivalence also arises from SpecialRelativity theory.

Einstein’s Postulates of Special Relativity:

1.The Laws of Physics apply equally in all inertial frames of reference2. The speed of light in a vacuum is measured as the same in allinertial frames

Evidence that supports the Theory of Special Relativity

The Michelson-Morley experiment shows that the speed of light isconstant regardless of your apparent motion. It was this experimentthat led to the development of the Theory of Special Relativity.

What do Einstein’s Postulates of Special Relativity mean?

1.If you drop a ball, it falls, bounces and comes back up. If youare on a bus at constant speed, dropping the ball gives exactlythe same result provided the bus is NOT ACCELERATING. Bothare inertial frames of reference. Any experiment performed onone can be repeated on the other and the same result obtained.This means that any inertial frame of reference is essentially thesame.2.Ships A and B move away from the sun at constant speed. Evenif A moves at ½

c

and B at ¾

c

, they are both inertial frames of reference and as such each will measure the speed of light withrespect to their own ship as

c

(3

×

10

8

m s

-1

).

SUNAB½

c

¾

c

Why?

From postulate 1 an observer on ship A could claim that A isstationary and that the Sun and ship B are moving away from A,so it is logical that it should measure the speed of light as c.Observers at Ship B and the Sun could both claim the samething (that they are stationary) and so can also measure speedof light as

c

.All have an equally valid claim and experiments show that theywould indeed each measure speed of light to be the same.

Inertial Frames of Reference

These are any frame of reference with no external forces actingupon it or any of the objects inside it. If you place a ball on the floorof an aeroplane in level, uniform flight, the ball will remain still,obeying Newton’s Laws. The aeroplane is an inertial frame of reference.However when it is accelerating the ball will roll backwards. For anobserver on the aircraft, the ball appears not to be obeying Newton’sLaws of motion. The aeroplane cannot be an inertial frame of reference.

Time Dilation

Example Exam Question 1

(

c

= 3

×

10

8

m s

-1

)(a)A train travels along a level straight track. Show that at a uniformspeed of 30 m s

-1

there is no significant effect of time dilation.[2 marks](b) As the train passes a point on the embankment a stop clock onthe train and on the platform are started simultaneously(i)An observer on the platform simultaneously reads theplatform clock 7 minutes later, and reads the clock on thetrain as 6 minutes. What is the new speed of the train asmeasured from the observer? [2 marks](ii)What is the speed of the station as measured from the train?[1 mark](iii) An observer on the train can see both clocks. When thetrain clock reads 7 minutes, state what time the station clock will read.[1 mark]

An observer watches another frame of reference movingat speed v with respect to him.t

0

is the time measured in the frame of reference (proper time)tis the time measured by the observer vis the speed of the frame of referencewith respect to the observer cis the speed of light, (3

×

10

8

m s

-1

)

Exam Hint :-

•t

0,

the dilated time, is always smaller than t.•when given a speed as a fraction of c, eg 0.5c, use 0.5c inthe equation for ease. The two c’s will cancel out makingthe calculation simpler.

( )

022

t t 1vc

=−

149. Special Relativity

Physics Factsheet

2

Example Exam Question 1 Answers

(a)You have to demonstrate that t

≈

t

0

. A good approach is to show that t/t

0

≈

1

( )

022

t t 1vc

=−

substitute in the velocity and the speed of light and divide by t

0

()()

28216 0

t11t 130(310)1900(910)

= =− × − ×

()

14

11111110

−

= ≈ =− ×

(As 1 - 1

×

10

-14

= 0.99999999999999

≈

1 )

00

t 1tt t

≈

⇒

≈

Hence relativistic effects are negligible as time is almost equalto dilated time.b(i) For ease, convert times to seconds and decide which time iswhich:the moving reference frame is the train, so the clock on thetrain which is measuring 6 minutes is t

0

. t is 7 minutes, thetime as measured by the observer on the platform.t

0

= 6 min = 360 st = 7 min = 420 s

You must rearrange the equation carefully. Practise thisuntil you can get the equation shown below.b(ii) From the inertial reference frame of the train, the station ismoving backwards and the train is stationary. Therefore,the speed of the station as measured from the train is thesame as the speed of the train as measured from the station.v = 1.13

×

10

8

m s

-1

b(iii)6 minutes (360s)

As the station is viewed to be moving, then the situation from (b) (i) is reversed. If the station is moving with speed 1.1(3)

×

10

8

ms

-1

then it will experience time dilation just as the train did when viewed from the platform.We could put all the numbers in again but as we have donethis calculation already to find the speed we know that thedilated time is 6 minutes (360s) Notice this result with care!The observer on the platform sees the train is moving. Hereads the station clock as 7 minutes and the clock on thetrain as 6 minutes.From the reference frame of the train:The observer on the train sees the platform moving. Whenthe train clock reads 7 minutes he sees the clock on the platform as 6 minutes.This may seem to make no sense but it is the essence of relativity in that you get different results depending on your view point.

Exam Hint:-

•Some questions will involve algebraic manipulations so you should practice rearranging the formulae until youare comfortable with doing it.•These calculations are quite complicated to enter correctlyonto a calculator so ensure that you can get the answer shown in the example. Be careful to use brackets as shownso that you are square rooting the correct parts.•“State…” indicates that no calculation is needed, so theanswer should be obvious.•These equations use ratios, which means you do not haveto convert the units as was done in the above example. Youcould use minutes and get the same answer.

Length contractions (Lorentz contractions)

A ship is measured by the astronaut to be 100 m long.

100 m

As it flies past Earth at close to the speed of light it is measured tobe less than 100 m long. The length has contracted.If the astronaut tries to measure the length of the ship, the tapemeasure he uses is also moving and would contract by the sameamount, so he would still measure it as being 100 m long. From thepoint of view of the astronaut, nothing about the ship has changed.Notice that the ship does notshrink, it simply gets shorterin the direction it wastravelling.

l

0

is the proper length, the length of the object when measured at rest (eg the length of the ship as measured by theastronaut).lis the length as measured from a frame that is moving withrespect to the object. (eg the Earth observer who is not moving alongside the ship and therefore is moving ‘withrespect to it’.)

()

220

ll1vc

= −

()

120022

tt tvc1t 1vc

⎛ ⎞

=

⇒

= −

⎜ ⎟⎝ ⎠

−

12881

36031011.1310ms420

−

⎛ ⎞

= × − = ×

⎜ ⎟⎝ ⎠

Physics Factsheet

3

149. Special Relativity

Reversing the situation

From the frame of the ship it can be said that the ship is stationaryand the Earth is moving. From this view point the ship would seethe Earth contract and look like a squashed ball in the direction itwas apparently moving.

Reducing the distance

A very fast car travelling along a road will be seen to contract by anobserver at the roadside.

v

For the driver, however, it is the road that is moving in relation toher. Whilst her car stays the same size, the road contracts.

v

The result is that at speeds approaching the speed of light thedistance travelled by the car decreases as measured from the car.

Example Exam Question 2

A missile in a silo is measured to be 143cm long and 28 cm in diameterat its widest point. An on board computer will measure the lengthof the missile during the flight. (c = 3

×

10

8

ms

-1

)(a) The missile is fired at 1

×

10

8

ms

-1

with respect to its launch pad(i)What is the length of the missile according to the on boardinstruments? [1 mark](ii)What is the length of the missile as measured by anindependent observer on the launch pad? [2 marks](iii)What is the diameter of the missile as measured by this sameobserver? [1 mark](b) The missile travels a distance of 1 km as measured from thelaunch pad(i)What is the distance travelled by the missile as measured byit’s on board computer? [2 marks](ii)Show that the speed as measured by the launch pad observeris the same as the speed measured by the on board computer.[2 marks]

Example Exam Question 2 Answers

(a)(i) The length of the missile as measured at rest is 143 cm. Asthe computer and measuring equipment are at rest with themissile, then the computer reads the length as 143 cm.

(ii)l is the length as measured from the launch pad (thecontracted length)

(Correct substitution of numbers)

(correct answer & unit)(iii) The dimensions of the rocket only contract in the directionit is travelling. Therefore, the diameter remains unchanged at 28 cm

(b) (i)The proper length is l

0

, the distance travelled by the missileas measured from the launch pad. l is the distance asmeasured by the missile.

= 0.9428 = 0.84 km

(Correct substitution of numbers)

(correct answer & unit)

Exam Hint:-

We can check that this is an appropriate answer as we would expect this length to be smaller but as the speed is less than half the speed of light then the change is not too significant.(b)(ii)Speed measured from launch pad = 1

×

10

8

ms

-1

speed

measured =

distance

measured by missile= l/t

0

from missile

time

measured by missilespeed measured by missile

l

0

/t is the distance as measured from the launch pad divided by the time as measured by the launch pad. Thisis clearly the speed as measured by the launch pad.Therefore, speed from launch pad = speed as measured by the rocket.

= speed measured from launch pad

Exam Hint:-

•Leaving the length as centimetres in aii) is fine just remember the answer will be in centimetres. If you want the answer inmetres then use l

0

= 1.43 m. Likewise with bi) which was left as km.•As a check, l is always less than l

0

If an observer measures the mass of an object movingrelative to them, it will increase as the speed of the object increases:m

0

is the mass of the object measured atrest (proper mass)mis the relativistic massas v gets close to c then

Exam Hint:-

as a check, m

0

is always less than m

the closer to light speed an object gets, the closer its mass gets tobeing infinite. Therefore a near infinite force is required to get anymore acceleration.

Relativistic mass increase

Particle accelerators and the speed of light

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons to 99.9999991% thespeed of light. To reach 100% is impossible:

202

vll1c

= − =

()( )

2828

1101431134cm310

⎛ ⎞

×

⎜ ⎟

− =

⎜ ⎟

×

⎝ ⎠

()

022

mm1vc

=−

()

022

mm1vc

=−

( )

( )

00022

mmmm0111cc

= = = →∞−−

()( )

2820228

110vll111c310

⎛ ⎞

×

⎜ ⎟

= − = −

⎜ ⎟

×

⎝ ⎠

( )()

2200220

l1vclltt t1vc

−= = =−

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