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The Theory of Special Relativity and

Thomas Xu
9 June 2012

Arguably the most famous equation in the world,

has become so integral into
contemporary science with its many applications in fields such as space and nuclear science. Of course,
it was the legendary Albert Einstein that first derived this famous equation in his series of papers on
special relativity in 1905. It was in these papers where Einstein famously stated that time is relative and
that energy is directly related to the mass of an object times the speed of light squared. Therefore, to
understand the meaning of

, one must first be able to understand some basics concerning
special relativity.
In a basic summary to special relativity, there are two postulates that framed the theory. First
was the postulate that the laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference. What it means
by reference frames relates to fact that depending on one’s frame of reference, they might perceive
different values like velocity, but all laws of physics would still be obeyed. For example, a person
standing on a moving bus might perceive himself to be stationary, while an observer outside the bus
clearly sees that person moving at a velocity . If that person threw a ball, all equations related to that
ball would still work even though different values could be measured depending on one’s reference
frame. The second postulate is that light propagates through space at a constant speed of (approx.

) independent of any observer. This essentially states that no matter what reference frame
or condition, the speed of light will always be the same and was confirmed by the Michelson-Morley
experiment in 1887. But this created a problem. How could anything else move if light had an
unchangeable speed? According to the traditional way of adding velocities in Newtonian physics, and
the fact that all bodies emit light, if anything moved at some velocity , the resultant velocity of the light
should be . However, according to the second postulate, this is obviously not true.
In 1895, a man by the name of Hendrik Lorentz tackled this problem while studying
electromagnetism, and in fact, discovered the relativity of time before Einstein. Lorentz, wanted to find
a way to describe how measurements in two different reference frames could be converted into one
another, i.e. how to explain how things move despite the constancy of light.
First, one must look at Galilean transformations which relate coordinates of an object in
different reference frames. Consider two reference frames and

with coordinate systems and

respectively. For the sake of simplicity, reference frame moves along the x-axis at a speed of
and the origins of the two coordinates are superimposed at time . So if there is a point in
reference frame , where would be in respect to reference frame ? Since is the only coordinate
changing, we can easily see that is simply represented by the velocity times the time reference

traveled plus . To summarize, we obtain the following equations:

To find the coordinates of from , we use the equations:

Now let’s assume that object is now moving, and since it is only moving in the direction, we
can represent its velocity with the horizontal velocity vector

. From this, we can simply derive the
traditional method of adding velocities, otherwise known as Galilean velocity transformations.

For seen in reference frame we have:







Quite simply, one can see that this is just a derivation and proof of how adding velocities to
another in respect to another reference frame. For example, if one walked in a train traveling
, they would be traveling with respect to the earth. However, these simple
transformations only work when applied to slow velocities compared to velocities that are closer to the
speed of light. As on can see, replace

with in the equation

will result in a speed of
, which clearly violates the second postulate that was proven by the Michelson-Morley
To find an equation that could account for the constancy of light, Lorentz assumed that a factor
γ was applied to the Galilean transformations. Again for simplicity sake, all movements are taken in the
x-direction only, thus:

And conversely for x:

Lorentz didn’t assume any form for , but rather derived it. So now, a light pulse leaves at the
common origin of and at time

. After some time, the light would have traveled a distance
in and

in . Therefore, the equations for and are:

Lorentz then solved the second equation for and then substituted that into the first equation.
After solving for γ, he got:

Now with a known γ factor, Lorentz combined


and then
solved for . In summary, he came up with what is now known as the Lorentz transformations:

Looking at these equations, Lorentz found out that time was modified concerning objects in
motion at high velocities. Unlike the Galilean transformations, Lorentz’s equations show that time was
not constant in every frame of reference. Unfortunately for Lorentz, that was the extent of his theory,
and it was Einstein in 1905 that derived the equations independently and proposed the now famous
theory of special relativity.
In addition to this discovery, Lorentz also discovered what is now known as the Lorentz factor,
otherwise known as:

That factor γ, is fundamental to Einstein’s theory of relativity, as it describes the changes in
time, mass, velocity, work, etc. observed under the effects of relativity. Essentially, Einstein’s theory of
relativity not only states that time is relative, but specifically explains how traveling at high velocities can
alter time, length, mass, etc. to an outside observer. For example, one of the most common theories
associated with the theory of special relativity is time dilation. Time dilation basically states that clocks
moving relative to an observer are measured by that observer to run more slowly (as compared to
clocks at rest).
This can be proven either of two ways. To put it simply for the sake of its length, one way is to
use the Lorentz factor along with the Lorentz transformation equations and substitute it into the

The other way uses simple Pythagorean geometry. It basically assumes that a light clock rests on
a ship that travels at a velocity close to the speed of light. Essentially, the distance the light traveled is
observed differently depending if it observed outside the ship or inside the ship, thus time is also
perceived differently:

In either cases, the resultant formula for time dilation results to be:

Now that Einstein came up the Theory of Relativity, he was able to apply those concepts to
derive the most famous equation in the world:

To do so, Einstein drew from the relativistic effects of mass as it approaches the speed of light.
The equation known as the mass increase formula basically describes how mass will increase to infinity
as it nears the speed of light:

Another way to think of it is that if a spaceship is using a constant force to accelerate, the
acceleration will have to decrease asymptotically to zero as it approaches the speed of light. Since force
stays constant in the equation , mass must increase to infinity.
With this concept of mass dilation, Einstein’s famous equation can now be derived. First, the
mass increase formula is written as:



We can expand (


and model it by an infinite Taylor series. However, all but the first
two terms could be ignored. Thus:


Plugging that into the original equation, we get:


Knowing that

, we can also substitute that in to finally derive the most famous
equation in the world:

In reality, Einstein derived it slightly differently by divulging into the specifics of the kinetic
energy of a moving body and relating that to momentum and its respective relativistic effects. By all
means though, this derivation essentially proves

in the same way Einstein proved it. In fact,
this is not the only derivation. In 1990, Fritz Rohrlich used the relativistic Doppler Effect to derive

another way.
Apart from the derivation and proofs,

truly has made an impact on the scientific world
as it has a plethora of application. For example, Einstein’s equation is used in the study of radioactive
decay. From that, scientists are able carbon date objects and understand more about the decay of
radioactive materials. Additionally, "Whenever you use a radioactive substance to illuminate processes
in the human body, you're paying direct homage to Einstein's insight," says Sylvester James Gates, a
physicist at the University of Maryland (Tyson). Of course, the impact that

made on
radioactive sciences then translates into other fields like medicine and archeology.
Probably the most significant impacts Einstein’s equation made on the world are the
applications it has concerning quite obviously energy. Since

is such a massive number, Einstein’s
equation basically states that everything as huge amounts of energy by the simple fact that it has mass.
More specifically, Einstein’s equation also describes what is known as mass defect. It explains the
discrepancies in mass between an atom as a whole and the sum of all its parts. For example, the rest
mass of helium is 4.00260 u (atomic mass units) but rest mass of the two protons and two neutrons in
helium added up equals 4.033 u. Using

, the mass difference can now be explained as it shows
us that the mass lost when particles combine to form a whole is essentially the binding energy of that
atom. Overall, the mass defect and Einstein’s equation demonstrate just how much energy is stored in
each atom.
In culmination,

is probably best known for its relation to nuclear sciences. Einstein’s
equation showed the world just how much potential energy there is within every single atom. Obviously,
that led to the development of nuclear energy, which draws from the equation’s application in mass
defect and radioactivity to harness the power within atoms. On the other side of the spectrum however,
is the use of Einstein’s equation for nuclear weapons. Nuclear energy uses the energy of the atom in a
very controlled and limited way, but in the development of nuclear weapons, this stored energy is taken
advantage of and turned loose and uncontrolled. Ultimately,

is responsible for producing two
ends of a spectrum that deals with the energy stored within atoms.
As far as common applications of

, that is about as far as it goes….for now. The Theory
on Special Relativity and Einstein’s equation extend far beyond the reaches of the earth. With them,
scientists can postulate on the universe about anything from the Big Bang to time travel. For example,
relativity and

are very important in discussions concerning time travel, the existence of worm
holes and whether or not the universe is spherical in nature or hyperbolic. The possibilities are endless
as conversations regarding dark matter and space travel spawn off of Einstein’s theories, and this is only
the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the biggest impacts Einstein’s theories and equations have are probably
ones that we have not discovered yet. Humans are just scratching the surface of universe and with the
help of

, they will hopefully find the key to the cosmos. For now, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard
puts it, “the sky’s the limit.”

Works Cited
Apfel, Necia H. It’s All Relative: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard , 1981.
Fritzsch, Harald. An Equation That Changed the World: Newton, Einstein, and the Theory of Relativity.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.
Giancoli, Douglas C. Physics: Principles with Applications. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998.
Orzel, Chad. How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
“Relativity Is.” ThinkQuest. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 June 2012. <
Tyson, Peter. “The Legacy of E = MC2.” NOVA. N.p., 11 Oct. 2005. Web. 9 June 2012.