# Frame of reference

A frame of reference in physics, may refer to a coordinate system or set of axes within which to measure the position, orientation, and other properties of objects in it, or it may refer to an observational reference frame tied to the state of motion of an observer. It may also refer to both an observational reference frame and an attached coordinate system as a unit.

Different aspects of "frame of reference"
The need to distinguish between the various meanings of "frame of reference" has led to a variety of terms. For example, sometimes the type of coordinate system is attached as a modifier, as in Cartesian frame of reference. Sometimes the state of motion is emphasized, as in rotating frame of reference. Sometimes the way it transforms to frames considered as related is emphasized as in Galilean frame of reference. Sometimes frames are distinguished by the scale of their observations, as in macroscopic and microscopic frames of reference.[1] In this article the term observational frame of reference is used when emphasis is upon the state of motion rather than upon the coordinate choice or the character of the observations or observational apparatus. In this sense, an observational frame of reference allows study of the effect of motion upon an entire family of coordinate systems that could be attached to this frame. On the other hand, a coordinate system may be employed for many purposes where the state of motion is not the primary concern. For example, a coordinate system may be adopted to take advantage of the symmetry of a system. In a still broader perspective, of course, the formulation of many problems in physics employs generalized coordinates, normal modes or eigenvectors, which are only indirectly related to space and time. It seems useful to divorce the various aspects of a reference frame for the discussion below. We therefore take observational frames of reference, coordinate systems, and observational equipment as independent concepts, separated as below:

An observational frame (such as an inertial frame or non-inertial frame of reference) is a physical concept related to state of motion. A coordinate system is a mathematical concept, amounting to a choice of language used to describe observations.[2] Consequently, an observer in an observational frame of reference can choose to employ any coordinate system (Cartesian, polar, curvilinear, generalized, …) to describe observations made from that frame of reference. A change in the choice of this coordinate system does not change an observer's state of motion, and so does not entail a change in the observer's observational frame of reference. This viewpoint can be found elsewhere as well.[3] Which is not to dispute that some coordinate systems may be a better choice for some observations than are others. Choice of what to measure and with what observational apparatus is a matter separate from the observer's state of motion and choice of coordinate system.

Here is a quotation applicable to moving observational frames three-space coordinate systems [R, R' , etc.]: [4]

and various associated Euclidean

We first introduce the notion of reference frame, itself related to the idea of observer: the reference frame is, in some sense, the "Euclidean space carried by the observer". Let us give a more mathematical definition:… the reference frame is... the set of all points in the Euclidean space with the rigid body motion of the observer. The frame, denoted , is said to move with the observer.… The spatial positions of particles are labelled relative to a frame by establishing a coordinate system R with origin O. The , corresponding set of axes, sharing the rigid body motion of the frame

can be considered to give a physical realization of . In a frame , coordinates are changed from R to R' by carrying out, at each instant of time, the same coordinate transformation on the components of intrinsic objects (vectors and tensors) introduced to represent physical quantities in this frame.

and this on the utility of separating the notions of

and [R, R' , etc.]:[5]

As noted by Brillouin, a distinction between mathematical sets of coordinates and physical frames of reference must be made. The ignorance of such distinction is the source of much confusion… the dependent functions such as velocity for example, are measured with respect to a physical reference frame, but one is free to choose any mathematical coordinate system in which the equations are specified.

and this, also on the distinction between

and [R, R' , etc.]:[6]

The idea of a reference frame is really quite different from that of a coordinate system. Frames differ just when they define different spaces (sets of rest points) or times (sets of simultaneous events). So the ideas of a space, a time, of rest and simultaneity, go inextricably together with that of frame. However, a mere shift of origin, or a purely spatial rotation of space coordinates results in a new coordinate system. So frames correspond at best to classes of coordinate systems.

” ”

and from J. D. Norton:[7]

In traditional developments of special and general relativity it has been customary not to distinguish between two quite distinct ideas. The first is

the notion of a coordinate system, understood simply as the smooth, invertible assignment of four numbers to events in spacetime neighborhoods. The second, the frame of reference, refers to an idealized system used to assign such numbers … To avoid unnecessary restrictions, we can divorce this arrangement from metrical notions. … Of special importance for our purposes is that each frame of reference has a definite state of motion at each event of spacetime.…Within the context of special relativity and as long as we restrict ourselves to frames of reference in inertial motion, then little of importance depends on the difference between an inertial frame of reference and the inertial coordinate system it induces. This comfortable circumstance ceases immediately once we begin to consider frames of reference in nonuniform motion even within special relativity.…More recently, to negotiate the obvious ambiguities of Einstein’s treatment, the notion of frame of reference has reappeared as a structure distinct from a coordinate system.

The discussion is taken beyond simple space-time coordinate systems by Brading and Castellani.[8] Extension to coordinate systems using generalized coordinates underlies the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian formulations[9] of quantum field theory, classical relativistic mechanics, and quantum gravity.[10][11][12][13][14]

Coordinate systems
Main article: Coordinate systems See also: Generalized coordinates and Axes conventions

An observer O, situated at the origin of a local set of coordinates - a frame of reference F. The observer in this frame uses the coordinates (x, y, z, t) to describe a spacetime event, shown as a star.

Although the term "coordinate system" is often used (particularly by physicists) in a nontechnical sense, the term "coordinate system" does have a precise meaning in mathematics, and sometimes that is what the physicist means as well. A coordinate system in mathematics is a facet of geometry or of algebra,[15][16] in particular, a property of manifolds (for example, in physics, configuration spaces or phase spaces).[17][18] The coordinates of a point r in an n-dimensional space are simply an ordered set of n numbers:[19][20]

In a general Banach space, these numbers could be (for example) coefficients in a functional expansion like a Fourier series. In a physical problem, they could be spacetime coordinates or normal mode amplitudes. In a robot design, they could be angles of relative rotations, linear displacements, or deformations of joints.[21] Here we will suppose these coordinates can be related to a Cartesian coordinate system by a set of functions:

where x, y, z, etc. are the n Cartesian coordinates of the point. Given these functions, coordinate surfaces are defined by the relations:

The intersection of these surfaces define coordinate lines. At any selected point, tangents to the intersecting coordinate lines at that point define a set of basis vectors {e1, e2, …, en} at that point. That is:[22]

which can be normalized to be of unit length. For more detail see curvilinear coordinates. Coordinate surfaces, coordinate lines, and basis vectors are components of a coordinate system.[23] If the basis vectors are orthogonal at every point, the coordinate system is an orthogonal coordinate system. An important aspect of a coordinate system is its metric gik, which determines the arc length ds in the coordinate system in terms of its coordinates:[24]

where repeated indices are summed over.

As is apparent from these remarks, a coordinate system is a mathematical construct, part of an axiomatic system. There is no necessary connection between coordinate systems and physical motion (or any other aspect of reality). However, coordinate systems can include time as a coordinate, and can be used to describe motion. Thus, Lorentz transformations and Galilean transformations may be viewed as coordinate transformations. General and specific topics of coordinate systems can be pursued following the See also links below.

Observational frames of reference
Main article: Inertial frame of reference

Three frames of reference in special relativity. Black frame is at rest. Primed frame moves at 40% of light speed, double primed at 80%. Note scissors-like change as speed increases.

An observational frame of reference, often referred to as a physical frame of reference, a frame of reference, or simply a frame, is a physical concept related to an observer and the observer's state of motion. Here we adopt the view expressed by Kumar and Barve: an observational frame of reference is characterized only by its state of motion.[25] However, there is lack of unanimity on this point. In special relativity, the distinction is sometimes made between an observer and a frame. According to this view, a frame is an observer plus a coordinate lattice constructed to be an orthonormal right-handed set of spacelike vectors perpendicular to a timelike vector. See Doran.[26] This restricted view is not used here, and is not universally adopted even in discussions of relativity.[27][28] In general relativity the use of general coordinate systems is common (see, for example, the Schwarzschild solution for the gravitational field outside an isolated sphere[29]). There are two types of observational reference frame: inertial and non-inertial. An inertial frame of reference is defined as one in which all laws of physics take on their simplest form. In special relativity these frames are related by Lorentz transformations, which are parametrized by rapidity.

In Newtonian mechanics, a more restricted definition requires only that Newton's first law holds true; that is, a Newtonian inertial frame is one in which a free particle travels in a straight line at constant speed, or is at rest. These frames are related by Galilean transformations. These relativistic and Newtonian transformations are expressed in spaces of general dimension in terms of representations of the Poincaré group and of the Galilean group. In contrast to the inertial frame, a non-inertial frame of reference is one in which fictitious forces must be invoked to explain observations. An example is an observational frame of reference centered at a point on the Earth's surface. This frame of reference orbits around the center of the Earth, which introduces a fictitious force known as the Coriolis force (among others).

Measurement apparatus
A further aspect of a frame of reference is the role of the measurement apparatus (for example, clocks and rods) attached to the frame (see Norton quote above). This question is not addressed in this article, and is of particular interest in quantum mechanics, where the relation between observer and measurement is still under discussion (see measurement problem). In physics experiments, the frame of reference in which the laboratory measurement devices are at rest is usually referred to as the laboratory frame or simply "lab frame." An example would be the frame in which the detectors for a particle accelerator are at rest. The lab frame in some experiments is an inertial frame, but it is not required to be (for example the laboratory on the surface of the Earth in many physics experiments is not inertial). In particle physics experiments, it is often useful to transform energies and momenta of particles from the lab frame where they are measured, to the center of momentum frame "COM frame" in which calculations are sometimes simplified, since potentially all kinetic energy still present in the COM frame may be used for making new particles. In this connection it may be noted that the clocks and rods often used to describe observers' measurement equipment in thought, in practice are replaced by a much more complicated and indirect metrology that is connected to the nature of the vacuum, and uses atomic clocks that operate according to the standard model and that must be corrected for gravitational time dilation. [30] (See second, meter and kilogram). In fact, Einstein felt that clocks and rods were merely expedient measuring devices and they should be replaced by more fundamental entities based upon, for example, atoms and molecules.[31]

Examples of inertial frames of reference
Simple example

Figure 1: Two cars moving at different but constant velocities observed from stationary inertial frame S attached to the road and moving inertial frame S' attached to the first car.

Consider a situation common in everyday life. Two cars travel along a road, both moving at constant velocities. See Figure 1. At some particular moment, they are separated by 200 metres. The car in front is travelling at 22 metres per second and the car behind is travelling at 30 metres per second. If we want to find out how long it will take the second car to catch up with the first, there are three obvious "frames of reference" that we could choose. First, we could observe the two cars from the side of the road. We define our "frame of reference" S as follows. We stand on the side of the road and start a stop-clock at the exact moment that the second car passes us, which happens to be when they are a distance d = 200 m apart. Since neither of the cars is accelerating, we can determine their positions by the following formulas, where is the position in meters of car one after time t seconds and after time t. is the position of car two

Notice that these formulas predict at t = 0 s the first car is 200 m down the road and the second car is right beside us, as expected. We want to find the time at which . Therefore we set and solve for , that is:

Alternatively, we could choose a frame of reference S' situated in the first car. In this case, the first car is stationary and the second car is approaching from behind at a speed of v2 − v1 = 8 m / s. In order to catch up to the first car, it will take a time of d /( v2 − v1) = 200 / 8 s, that is, 25 seconds, as before. Note how much easier the problem becomes by choosing a suitable frame of reference. The third possible frame of reference would be attached to the second car. That example resembles the case just discussed, except the second car is stationary and the first car moves backward towards it at 8 m / s. It would have been possible to choose a rotating, accelerating frame of reference, moving in a complicated manner, but this would have served to complicate the problem unnecessarily. It is also necessary to note that one is able to convert measurements made in one coordinate system to another. For example, suppose that your watch is running five minutes fast compared to the local standard time. If you know that this is the case, when somebody asks you what time it is, you are able to deduct five minutes from the time displayed on your watch in order to obtain the correct time. The measurements that an observer makes about a system depend therefore on the observer's frame of reference (you might say that the bus arrived at 5 past three, when in fact it arrived at three).

Additional example

Figure 2: Simple-minded frame-of-reference example This section's factual accuracy is disputed.
(February 2012)

For a simple example involving only the orientation of two observers, consider two people standing, facing each other on either side of a north-south street. See Figure 2. A car drives past them heading south. For the person facing east, the car was moving toward the right. However, for the person facing west, the car was moving toward the left. This discrepancy is because the two people used two different frames of reference from which to investigate this system. For a more complex example involving observers in relative motion, consider Alfred, who is standing on the side of a road watching a car drive past him from left to right. In his frame of reference, Alfred defines the spot where he is standing as the origin, the road as the x-axis and the direction in front of him as the positive y-axis. To him, the car moves along the x axis with some

velocity v in the positive x-direction. Alfred's frame of reference is considered an inertial frame of reference because he is not accelerating (ignoring effects such as Earth's rotation and gravity). Now consider Betsy, the person driving the car. Betsy, in choosing her frame of reference, defines her location as the origin, the direction to her right as the positive x-axis, and the direction in front of her as the positive y-axis. In this frame of reference, it is Betsy who is stationary and the world around her that is moving - for instance, as she drives past Alfred, she observes him moving with velocity v in the negative y-direction. If she is driving north, then north is the positive y-direction; if she turns east, east becomes the positive y-direction. Finally, as an example of non-inertial observers, assume Candace is accelerating her car. As she passes by him, Alfred measures her acceleration and finds it to be a in the negative x-direction. Assuming Candace's acceleration is constant, what acceleration does Betsy measure? If Betsy's velocity v is constant, she is in an inertial frame of reference, and she will find the acceleration to be the same as Alfred - in her frame of reference, a in the negative y-direction. However, if she is accelerating at rate A in the negative y-direction (in other words, slowing down), she will find Candace's acceleration to be a' = a - A in the negative y-direction - a smaller value than Alfred has measured. Similarly, if she is accelerating at rate A in the positive y-direction (speeding up), she will observe Candace's acceleration as a' = a + A in the negative y-direction - a larger value than Alfred's measurement. Frames of reference are especially important in special relativity, because when a frame of reference is moving at some significant fraction of the speed of light, then the flow of time in that frame does not necessarily apply in another frame. The speed of light is considered to be the only true constant between moving frames of reference.

Remarks
See also: Special theory of relativity and General theory of relativity

It is important to note some assumptions made above about the various inertial frames of reference. Newton, for instance, employed universal time, as explained by the following example. Suppose that you own two clocks, which both tick at exactly the same rate. You synchronize them so that they both display exactly the same time. The two clocks are now separated and one clock is on a fast moving train, traveling at constant velocity towards the other. According to Newton, these two clocks will still tick at the same rate and will both show the same time. Newton says that the rate of time as measured in one frame of reference should be the same as the rate of time in another. That is, there exists a "universal" time and all other times in all other frames of reference will run at the same rate as this universal time irrespective of their position and velocity. This concept of time and simultaneity was later generalized by Einstein in his special theory of relativity (1905) where he developed transformations between inertial frames of reference based upon the universal nature of physical laws and their economy of expression (Lorentz transformations). It is also important to note that the definition of inertial reference frame can be extended beyond three dimensional Euclidean space. Newton's assumed a Euclidean space, but general relativity uses a more general geometry. As an example of why this is important, let us consider the geometry of an ellipsoid. In this geometry, a "free" particle is defined as one at rest or traveling at

constant speed on a geodesic path. Two free particles may begin at the same point on the surface, traveling with the same constant speed in different directions. After a length of time, the two particles collide at the opposite side of the ellipsoid. Both "free" particles traveled with a constant speed, satisfying the definition that no forces were acting. No acceleration occurred and so Newton's first law held true. This means that the particles were in inertial frames of reference. Since no forces were acting, it was the geometry of the situation which caused the two particles to meet each other again. In a similar way, it is now believed that we exist in a four dimensional geometry known as spacetime. It is believed that the curvature of this 4D space is responsible for the way in which two bodies with mass are drawn together even if no forces are acting. This curvature of spacetime replaces the force known as gravity in Newtonian mechanics and special relativity.

Non-inertial frames
Main articles: Fictitious force, Non-inertial frame, and Rotating frame of reference

Here the relation between inertial and non-inertial observational frames of reference is considered. The basic difference between these frames is the need in non-inertial frames for fictitious forces, as described below. An accelerated frame of reference is often delineated as being the "primed" frame, and all variables that are dependent on that frame are notated with primes, e.g. x' , y' , a' . The vector from the origin of an inertial reference frame to the origin of an accelerated reference frame is commonly notated as R. Given a point of interest that exists in both frames, the vector from the inertial origin to the point is called r, and the vector from the accelerated origin to the point is called r'. From the geometry of the situation, we get

Taking the first and second derivatives of this, we obtain

where V and A are the velocity and acceleration of the accelerated system with respect to the inertial system and v and a are the velocity and acceleration of the point of interest with respect to the inertial frame. These equations allow transformations between the two coordinate systems; for example, we can now write Newton's second law as

When there is accelerated motion due to a force being exerted there is manifestation of inertia. If an electric car designed to recharge its battery system when decelerating is switched to braking, the batteries are recharged, illustrating the physical strength of manifestation of inertia. However, the manifestation of inertia does not prevent acceleration (or deceleration), for manifestation of inertia occurs in response to change in velocity due to a force. Seen from the perspective of a rotating frame of reference the manifestation of inertia appears to exert a force (either in centrifugal direction, or in a direction orthogonal to an object's motion, the Coriolis effect). A common sort of accelerated reference frame is a frame that is both rotating and translating (an example is a frame of reference attached to a CD which is playing while the player is carried). This arrangement leads to the equation (see Fictitious force for a derivation):

or, to solve for the acceleration in the accelerated frame,

Multiplying through by the mass m gives

where (Euler force) (Coriolis force) (centrifugal force)

Inertial frame of reference
In physics, an inertial frame of reference (also inertial reference frame or inertial frame or Galilean reference frame) is a frame of reference that describes time and space homogeneously, isotropically, and in a time-independent manner.[1] All inertial frames are in a state of constant, rectilinear motion with respect to one another; they are not accelerating in the sense that an accelerometer at rest in one would detect zero acceleration. Measurements in one inertial frame can be converted to measurements in another by a simple transformation (the Galilean transformation in Newtonian physics and the Lorentz transformation in special relativity). In general relativity, in any region small enough for the curvature of spacetime to be negligible one can find a set of inertial frames that approximately describe that region.[2][3]

Physical laws take the same form in all inertial frames.[4] By contrast, in a non-inertial reference frame the laws of physics vary depending on the acceleration of that frame with respect to an inertial frame, and the usual physical forces must be supplemented by fictitious forces.[5][6] For example, a ball dropped towards the ground does not go exactly straight down because the Earth is rotating. Someone rotating with the Earth must include the Coriolis force to predict the horizontal motion. Another example of a fictitious force associated with rotating reference frames is the centrifugal force. The motion of a body can only be described relative to something else - other bodies, observers, or a set of space-time coordinates. These are called frames of reference. If the coordinates are chosen badly, the laws of motion may be more complex than necessary. For example, suppose a free body (one having no external forces on it) is at rest at some instant. In many coordinate systems, it would begin to move at the next instant, even though there are no forces on it. However, a frame of reference can always be chosen in which it remains stationary. Similarly, if space is not described uniformly or time independently, a coordinate system could describe the simple flight of a free body in space as a complicated zig-zag in its coordinate system. Indeed, an intuitive summary of inertial frames can be given as: In an inertial reference frame, the laws of mechanics take their simplest form.[1] In an inertial frame, Newton's first law (the law of inertia) is satisfied: Any free motion has a constant magnitude and direction.[1] Newton's second law for a particle takes the form:

with F the net force (a vector), m the mass of a particle and a the acceleration of the particle (also a vector) which would be measured by an observer at rest in the frame. The force F is the vector sum of all "real" forces on the particle, such as electromagnetic, gravitational, nuclear and so forth. In contrast, Newton's second law in a rotating frame of reference, rotating at angular rate Ω about an axis, takes the form:

which looks the same as in an inertial frame, but now the force F′ is the resultant of not only F, but also additional terms (the paragraph following this equation presents the main points without detailed mathematics):

where the angular rotation of the frame is expressed by the vector Ω pointing in the direction of the axis of rotation, and with magnitude equal to the angular rate of rotation Ω, symbol × denotes the vector cross product, vector xB locates the body and vector vB is the velocity of the body according to a rotating observer (different from the velocity seen by the inertial observer). The extra terms in the force F′ are the "fictitious" forces for this frame. (The first extra term is the Coriolis force, the second the centrifugal force, and the third the Euler force.) These terms all have

these properties: they vanish when Ω = 0; that is, they are zero for an inertial frame (which, of course, does not rotate); they take on a different magnitude and direction in every rotating frame, depending upon its particular value of Ω; they are ubiquitous in the rotating frame (affect every particle, regardless of circumstance); and they have no apparent source in identifiable physical sources, in particular, matter. Also, fictitious forces do not drop off with distance (unlike, for example, nuclear forces or electrical forces). For example, the centrifugal force that appears to emanate from the axis of rotation in a rotating frame increases with distance from the axis. All observers agree on the real forces, F; only non-inertial observers need fictitious forces. The laws of physics in the inertial frame are simpler because unnecessary forces are not present. In Newton's time the fixed stars were invoked as a reference frame, supposedly at rest relative to absolute space. In reference frames that were either at rest with respect to the fixed stars or in uniform translation relative to these stars, Newton's laws of motion were supposed to hold. In contrast, in frames accelerating with respect to the fixed stars, an important case being frames rotating relative to the fixed stars, the laws of motion did not hold in their simplest form, but had to be supplemented by the addition of fictitious forces, for example, the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force. Two interesting experiments were devised by Newton to demonstrate how these forces could be discovered, thereby revealing to an observer that they were not in an inertial frame: the example of the tension in the cord linking two spheres rotating about their center of gravity, and the example of the curvature of the surface of water in a rotating bucket. In both cases, application of Newton's second law would not work for the rotating observer without invoking centrifugal and Coriolis forces to account for their observations (tension in the case of the spheres; parabolic water surface in the case of the rotating bucket). As we now know, the fixed stars are not fixed. Those that reside in the Milky Way turn with the galaxy, exhibiting proper motions. Those that are outside our galaxy (such as nebulae once mistaken to be stars) participate in their own motion as well, partly due to expansion of the universe, and partly due to peculiar velocities.[7] (The Andromeda galaxy is on collision course with the Milky Way at a speed of 117 km/s.[8]) The concept of inertial frames of reference is no longer tied to either the fixed stars or to absolute space. Rather, the identification of an inertial frame is based upon the simplicity of the laws of physics in the frame. In particular, the absence of fictitious forces is their identifying property.[9] In practice, although not a requirement, using a frame of reference based upon the fixed stars as though it were an inertial frame of reference introduces very little discrepancy. For example, the centrifugal acceleration of the Earth because of its rotation about the Sun is about thirty million times greater than that of the Sun about the galactic center.[10] To illustrate further, consider the question: "Does our Universe rotate?" To answer, we might attempt to explain the shape of the Milky Way galaxy using the laws of physics.[11] (Other observations might be more definitive (that is, provide larger discrepancies or less measurement uncertainty), like the anisotropy of the microwave background radiation or Big Bang nucleosynthesis.[12][13]) Just how flat the disc of the Milky Way is depends on its rate of rotation in an inertial frame of reference. If we attribute its apparent rate of rotation entirely to rotation in an inertial frame, a different "flatness" is predicted than if we suppose part of this rotation actually is

due to rotation of the Universe and should not be included in the rotation of the galaxy itself. Based upon the laws of physics, a model is set up in which one parameter is the rate of rotation of the Universe. If the laws of physics agree more accurately with observations in a model with rotation than without it, we are inclined to select the best-fit value for rotation, subject to all other pertinent experimental observations. If no value of the rotation parameter is successful and theory is not within observational error, a modification of physical law is considered. (For example, dark matter is invoked to explain the galactic rotation curve.) So far, observations show any rotation of the Universe is very slow (no faster than once every 60·1012 years (10−13 rad/yr)[14]), and debate persists over whether there is any rotation. However, if rotation were found, interpretation of observations in a frame tied to the Universe would have to be corrected for the fictitious forces inherent in such rotation. Evidently, such an approach adopts the view that "an inertial frame of reference is one where our laws of physics apply" (or need the least modification).

Background
A brief comparison of inertial frames in special relativity and in Newtonian mechanics, and the role of absolute space is next.

A set of frames where the laws of physics are simple
According to the first postulate of special relativity, all physical laws take their simplest form in an inertial frame, and there exist multiple inertial frames interrelated by uniform translation: [15]
Special principle of relativity: If a system of coordinates K is chosen so that, in relation to it, physical laws hold good in their simplest form, the same laws hold good in relation to any other system of coordinates K' moving in uniform translation relatively to K. —Albert Einstein: The foundation of the general theory of relativity, Section A, §1

The principle of simplicity can be used within Newtonian physics as well as in special relativity; see Nagel[16] and also Blagojević.[17]
The laws of Newtonian mechanics do not always hold in their simplest form...If, for instance, an observer is placed on a disc rotating relative to the earth, he/she will sense a 'force' pushing him/her toward the periphery of the disc, which is not caused by any interaction with other bodies. Here, the acceleration is not the consequence of the usual force, but of the so-called inertial force. Newton's laws hold in their simplest form only in a family of reference frames, called inertial frames. This fact represents the essence of the Galilean principle of relativity: The laws of mechanics have the same form in all inertial frames.    —Milutin Blagojević: Gravitation and Gauge Symmetries, p. 4

In practical terms, the equivalence of inertial reference frames means that scientists within a box moving uniformly cannot determine their absolute velocity by any experiment (otherwise the differences would set up an absolute standard reference frame).[18][19] According to this definition, supplemented with the constancy of the speed of light, inertial frames of reference transform among themselves according to the Poincaré group of symmetry transformations, of which the Lorentz transformations are a subgroup.[20] In Newtonian mechanics, which can be viewed as a limiting case of special relativity in which the speed of light is infinite, inertial frames of reference are related by the Galilean group of symmetries.

Absolute space
Main article: Absolute space and time

Newton posited an absolute space considered well approximated by a frame of reference stationary relative to the fixed stars. An inertial frame was then one in uniform translation relative to absolute space. However, some scientists (called "relativists" by Mach[21]), even at the time of Newton, felt that absolute space was a defect of the formulation, and should be replaced. Indeed, the expression inertial frame of reference (German: Inertialsystem) was coined by Ludwig Lange in 1885, to replace Newton's definitions of "absolute space and time" by a more operational definition.[22][23] As referenced by Iro, Lange proposed:[24]
A reference frame in which a mass point thrown from the same point in three different (non co-planar) directions follows rectilinear paths each time it is thrown, is called an inertial frame.

A discussion of Lange's proposal can be found in Mach.[21] The inadequacy of the notion of "absolute space" in Newtonian mechanics is spelled out by Blagojević:[25]

• •

The existence of absolute space contradicts the internal logic of classical mechanics since, according to Galilean principle of relativity, none of the inertial frames can be singled out. Absolute space does not explain inertial forces since they are related to acceleration with respect to any one of the inertial frames. Absolute space acts on physical objects by inducing their resistance to acceleration but it cannot be acted upon.

— Milutin Blagojević: Gravitation and Gauge Symmetries, p. 5

The utility of operational definitions was carried much further in the special theory of relativity.[26] Some historical background including Lange's definition is provided by DiSalle, who says in summary:[27]

The original question, "relative to what frame of reference do the laws of motion hold?" is revealed to be wrongly posed. For the laws of motion essentially determine a class of reference frames, and (in principle) a procedure for constructing them. —Robert DiSalle Space and Time: Inertial Frames

Newton's inertial frame of reference

Figure 1: Two frames of reference moving with relative velocity . Frame S' has an arbitrary but fixed rotation with respect to frame S. They are both inertial frames provided a body not subject to forces appears to move in a straight line. If that motion is seen in one frame, it will also appear that way in the other.

Within the realm of Newtonian mechanics, an inertial frame of reference, or inertial reference frame, is one in which Newton's first law of motion is valid.[28] However, the principle of special relativity generalizes the notion of inertial frame to include all physical laws, not simply Newton's first law. Newton viewed the first law as valid in any reference frame that is in uniform motion relative to the fixed stars;[29] that is, neither rotating nor accelerating relative to the stars.[30] Today the notion of "absolute space" is abandoned, and an inertial frame in the field of classical mechanics is defined as:[31][32]
An inertial frame of reference is one in which the motion of a particle not subject to forces is in a straight line at constant speed.

Hence, with respect to an inertial frame, an object or body accelerates only when a physical force is applied, and (following Newton's first law of motion), in the absence of a net force, a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will continue to move uniformly—that is, in a straight

line and at constant speed. Newtonian inertial frames transform among each other according to the Galilean group of symmetries. If this rule is interpreted as saying that straight-line motion is an indication of zero net force, the rule does not identify inertial reference frames, because straight-line motion can be observed in a variety of frames. If the rule is interpreted as defining an inertial frame, then we have to be able to determine when zero net force is applied. The problem was summarized by Einstein:[33]
The weakness of the principle of inertia lies in this, that it involves an argument in a circle: a mass moves without acceleration if it is sufficiently far from other bodies; we know that it is sufficiently far from other bodies only by the fact that it moves without acceleration. —Albert Einstein: The Meaning of Relativity, p. 58

There are several approaches to this issue. One approach is to argue that all real forces drop off with distance from their sources in a known manner, so we have only to be sure that we are far enough away from all sources to ensure that no force is present.[34] A possible issue with this approach is the historically long-lived view that the distant universe might affect matters (Mach's principle). Another approach is to identify all real sources for real forces and account for them. A possible issue with this approach is that we might miss something, or account inappropriately for their influence (Mach's principle again?). A third approach is to look at the way the forces transform when we shift reference frames. Fictitious forces, those that arise due to the acceleration of a frame, disappear in inertial frames, and have complicated rules of transformation in general cases. On the basis of universality of physical law and the request for frames where the laws are most simply expressed, inertial frames are distinguished by the absence of such fictitious forces. Newton enunciated a principle of relativity himself in one of his corollaries to the laws of motion:
[35][36]

The motions of bodies included in a given space are the same among themselves, whether that space is at rest or moves uniformly forward in a straight line. —Isaac Newton: Principia, Corollary V, p. 88 in Andrew Motte translation

This principle differs from the special principle in two ways: first, it is restricted to mechanics, and second, it makes no mention of simplicity. It shares with the special principle the invariance of the form of the description among mutually translating reference frames.[37] The role of fictitious forces in classifying reference frames is pursued further below.

Separating non-inertial from inertial reference frames
Main article: Fictitious force See also: Non-inertial frame, Rotating spheres, and Bucket argument

Figure 2: Two spheres tied with a string and rotating at an angular rate ω. Because of the rotation, the string tying the spheres together is under tension.

Figure 3: Exploded view of rotating spheres in an inertial frame of reference showing the centripetal forces on the spheres provided by the tension in the tying string.

Inertial and non-inertial reference frames can be distinguished by the absence or presence of fictitious forces, as explained shortly.[5][6]
The effect of his being in the noninertial frame is to require the observer to introduce a fictitious force into his calculations…. —Sidney Borowitz and Lawrence A Bornstein in A Contemporary View of Elementary Physics, p. 138

The presence of fictitious forces indicates the physical laws are not the simplest laws available so, in terms of the special principle of relativity, a frame where fictitious forces are present is not an inertial frame:[38]
The equations of motion in a non-inertial system differ from the equations in an inertial system by additional terms called inertial forces. This allows us to detect experimentally the non-inertial nature of a system. —V. I. Arnol'd: Mathematical Methods of Classical Mechanics Second Edition, p. 129

Bodies in non-inertial reference frames are subject to so-called fictitious forces (pseudo-forces); that is, forces that result from the acceleration of the reference frame itself and not from any physical force acting on the body. Examples of fictitious forces are the centrifugal force and the Coriolis force in rotating reference frames. How then, are "fictitious" forces to be separated from "real" forces? It is hard to apply the Newtonian definition of an inertial frame without this separation. For example, consider a stationary object in an inertial frame. Being at rest, no net force is applied. But in a frame rotating about a fixed axis, the object appears to move in a circle, and is subject to centripetal force (which is made up of the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force). How can we decide that the rotating frame is a non-inertial frame? There are two approaches to this resolution: one approach is to look for the origin of the fictitious forces (the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force). We will find there are no sources for these forces, no associated force carriers, no originating bodies.[39] A second approach is to look at a variety of frames of reference. For any inertial frame, the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force disappear, so application of the principle of special relativity would identify these frames where the forces disappear as sharing the same and the simplest physical laws, and hence rule that the rotating frame is not an inertial frame. Newton examined this problem himself using rotating spheres, as shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3. He pointed out that if the spheres are not rotating, the tension in the tying string is measured as zero in every frame of reference.[40] If the spheres only appear to rotate (that is, we are watching stationary spheres from a rotating frame), the zero tension in the string is accounted for by observing that the centripetal force is supplied by the centrifugal and Coriolis forces in combination, so no tension is needed. If the spheres really are rotating, the tension observed is exactly the centripetal force required by the circular motion. Thus, measurement of the tension in the string identifies the inertial frame: it is the one where the tension in the string provides exactly the centripetal force demanded by the motion as it is observed in that frame, and not a different value. That is, the inertial frame is the one where the fictitious forces vanish. So much for fictitious forces due to rotation. However, for linear acceleration, Newton expressed the idea of undetectability of straight-line accelerations held in common:[36]
If bodies, any how moved among themselves, are urged in the direction of parallel lines by equal accelerative forces, they will continue to move among themselves, after the same manner as if they had been urged by no such forces. —Isaac Newton: Principia Corollary VI, p. 89, in Andrew Motte translation

This principle generalizes the notion of an inertial frame. For example, an observer confined in a free-falling lift will assert that he himself is a valid inertial frame, even if he is accelerating under gravity, so long as he has no knowledge about anything outside the lift. So, strictly speaking, inertial frame is a relative concept. With this in mind, we can define inertial frames collectively as a set of frames which are stationary or moving at constant velocity with respect to each other, so that a single inertial frame is defined as an element of this set.

For these ideas to apply, everything observed in the frame has to be subject to a base-line, common acceleration shared by the frame itself. That situation would apply, for example, to the elevator example, where all objects are subject to the same gravitational acceleration, and the elevator itself accelerates at the same rate.

Newtonian mechanics
Main article: Newton's laws of motion

Classical mechanics, which includes relativity, assumes the equivalence of all inertial reference frames. Newtonian mechanics makes the additional assumptions of absolute space and absolute time. Given these two assumptions, the coordinates of the same event (a point in space and time) described in two inertial reference frames are related by a Galilean transformation.

where r0 and t0 represent shifts in the origin of space and time, and v is the relative velocity of the two inertial reference frames. Under Galilean transformations, the time t2 − t1 between two events is the same for all inertial reference frames and the distance between two simultaneous events (or, equivalently, the length of any object, |r2 − r1|) is also the same.

Special relativity
Main articles: Special relativity and Introduction to special relativity

Einstein's theory of special relativity, like Newtonian mechanics, assumes the equivalence of all inertial reference frames, but makes an additional assumption, foreign to Newtonian mechanics, namely, that in free space light always is propagated with the speed of light c0, a defined value independent of its direction of propagation and its frequency, and also independent of the state of motion of the emitting body. This second assumption has been verified experimentally and leads to counter-intuitive deductions including:
• • •

time dilation (moving clocks tick more slowly) length contraction (moving objects are shortened in the direction of motion) relativity of simultaneity (simultaneous events in one reference frame are not simultaneous in almost all frames moving relative to the first).

These deductions are logical consequences of the stated assumptions, and are general properties of space-time, typically without regard to a consideration of properties pertaining to the structure of individual objects like atoms or stars, nor to the mechanisms of clocks. These effects are expressed mathematically by the Lorentz transformation

where shifts in origin have been ignored, the relative velocity is assumed to be in the -direction and the Lorentz factor γ is defined by:

The Lorentz transformation is equivalent to the Galilean transformation in the limit c0 → ∞ (a hypothetical case) or v → 0 (low speeds). Under Lorentz transformations, the time and distance between events may differ among inertial reference frames; however, the Lorentz scalar distance s between two events is the same in all inertial reference frames

From this perspective, the speed of light is only accidentally a property of light, and is rather a property of spacetime, a conversion factor between conventional time units (such as seconds) and length units (such as meters). Incidentally, because of the limitations on speeds faster than the speed of light, notice that a rotating frame of reference (which is a non-inertial frame, of course) cannot be used out to arbitrary distances because at large radius its components would move faster than the speed of light.[41]

General relativity
Main articles: General relativity and Introduction to general relativity See also: Equivalence principle and Eötvös experiment

General relativity is based upon the principle of equivalence:[42][43]
There is no experiment observers can perform to distinguish whether an acceleration arises because of a gravitational force or because their reference frame is accelerating. —Douglas C. Giancoli, Physics for Scientists and Engineers with Modern Physics, p. 155.

This idea was introduced in Einstein's 1907 article "Principle of Relativity and Gravitation" and later developed in 1911.[44] Support for this principle is found in the Eötvös experiment, which determines whether the ratio of inertial to gravitational mass is the same for all bodies, regardless of size or composition. To date no difference has been found to a few parts in 1011.[45] For some discussion of the subtleties of the Eötvös experiment, such as the local mass distribution around the experimental site (including a quip about the mass of Eötvös himself), see Franklin.[46] Einstein’s general theory modifies the distinction between nominally "inertial" and "noninertial" effects by replacing special relativity's "flat" Euclidean geometry with a curved metric. In general relativity, the principle of inertia is replaced with the principle of geodesic motion, whereby objects move in a way dictated by the curvature of spacetime. As a consequence of this curvature, it is not a given in general relativity that inertial objects moving at a particular rate with respect to each other will continue to do so. This phenomenon of geodesic deviation means that inertial frames of reference do not exist globally as they do in Newtonian mechanics and special relativity. However, the general theory reduces to the special theory over sufficiently small regions of spacetime, where curvature effects become less important and the earlier inertial frame arguments can come back into play. Consequently, modern special relativity is now sometimes described as only a "local theory". (However, this refers to the theory’s application rather than to its derivation.)

Local reference frame
In theoretical physics, a local reference frame (local frame) refers to a coordinate system or frame of reference that is only expected to function over a small region or a restricted region of space or spacetime. The term is most often used in the context of the application of local inertial frames to small regions of a gravitational field. Although gravitational tidal forces will cause the background geometry to become noticeably non-Euclidean over larger regions, if we restrict ourselves to a sufficiently small region containing a cluster of objects falling together in an effectively uniform gravitational field, their physics can be described as the physics of that cluster in a space free from explicit background gravitational effects.

Einstein and general relativity
When constructing his general theory of relativity, Einstein took the result that an accelerated body feels an apparent gravitational field (geeforces), and inverted it: an object in a gravitational field, if it is not accelerated, will not be able to detect the existence of the field by making local measurements ("a falling man feels no gravity"). Einstein was then able to complete his general theory by arguing that the physics of curved spacetime must reduce over small regions to the physics of simple inertial mechanics (in this case special relativity) for small freefalling regions.

Einstein referred to this as "the happiest idea of my life".

Earth-centered inertial
Earth-centered inertial (ECI) coordinate frames have their origins at the center of mass of the Earth. ECI frames are called inertial in contrast to the Earth-centered, Earth-fixed (ECEF) frames which rotate in inertial space in order to remain fixed with respect to the surface of the Earth. It is convenient to represent the positions and velocities of terrestrial objects in ECEF coordinates or with latitude, longitude, and altitude. However, for objects in space, the equations of motion that describe orbital motion are simpler in a non-rotating frame such as ECI. The ECI frame is also useful for specifying the direction toward celestial objects. ECI coordinate frames are not truly inertial since the Earth itself is accelerating as it travels in its orbit about the Sun. In many cases, it may be assumed that the ECI frame is inertial without adverse effect. However, when computing the gravitational influence of a third body such as the Moon on the dynamics of a spacecraft, the acceleration of the ECI frame must be considered. For example, when computing the acceleration of an Earth-orbiting spacecraft due to the gravitational influence of the Moon, the acceleration of the Earth itself due to the Moon's gravity must be subtracted.

To show a location about the earth using the ECI system; the Cartesian Coordinates are used. The x-y plane coincides with the Earth’s equatorial plane. The x axis is permanently fixed in a direction relative to the celestial sphere (which does not rotate like the Earth does). The z axis lies at a 90 angle to the equatorial plane and extends through the North Pole. Due to forces exerted from the sun and moon, the Earth’s equatorial plane moves with respect to the celestial sphere. The Earth rotates, the ECI Coordinate system does not.

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