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An Illuminating Introduction to Relativistic Electrodynamics

Matthew J. Amoroso
AP Phyics C Teacher at Thornton Academy
Tai Duc Nguyen
AP Phyics C Student at Thornton Academy
(Dated : August 10, 2015)

Abstract
We present a simple but enlightening problem that is designed for students near the end of their first year
of university or college physics, after a brief introduction to both electromagnetism and special relativity.
Einsteins solution beautifully resolves a paradox that arises from the classical approach.

Introduction
Two positive charges are released from rest at a certain distance from each other. According to an observer

in this initial rest frame, they repel each other with a force calculated from Coulombs Law. However, if
another observer moves at a speed v perpendicular to the line connecting the point charges, they also attract
each other according to the Biot-Savart Law. Both the magnitude of the magnetic field that each charge
generates and the magnitude of the force that each charge feels depend on the magnitude of that velocity.
Yet the laws of physics should be the same in all inertial reference frames. We havent interacted with
them at all, so why should a magnetic field suddenly appear as a person run pass them? Does this magnetic
field exist? What is its actual magnitude? What if the speed is so great that the magnetic attraction becomes
greater than the electrostatic repulsion?
Einsteins prediction is that the particles are always repelled by the same electrostatic force in all frames
of reference, but that time, for them, moves more slowly according to the moving observer. We show in this
paper that this time dilation is exactly what Einstein predicted and that the electric and magnetic forces
reach equilibrium at exactly the speed of light, corresponding with an infinite time dilation.

Who Is This For?


This example is for students near the end of their first year of university physics. Students should have

a basic knowledge of electromagnetism, special relativity, and differential calculus.

Why This Approach?


The usual approach to introducing relativistic electrodynamics involves a wire with a current and a point

charge moving parallel to it. It is then shown that magnetic forces are side effects of relativist charge densities
caused by length contraction. While every student should certainly study this example, we feel our approach
is far simpler in scope and perhaps more appropriate for the very first foray into the subject. If nothing else,
it provides a problem that relies solely on time dilation and the principle of relativity to resolve.

The Problem in Frame 1


Two identical, positively charged particles are released from rest, far from the influence of any other

forces. They are both of mass m and charge q with negligible gravitational attraction. They are released
at distance of 2y from each other, so that the origin of Reference Frame 1 is always halfway between them.
The symmetry of the problem allows us to draw a free body diagram of just one of them to solve for the
future motion of the system.
According to Coulombs Law, the force on either particle as a function of their y-coordinate is:
1
qq
q2
FE =
=
40 (2y)2
160 y 2
2

Figure 1: Frame 1: the observer standing still


Now applying Newtons Second Law we get a very neat looking, though rather difficult to solve differential
equation. Dont let it trouble you; we wont actually need to solve it.
Fy = may

Fy = m

d2 y
dt2

q2
d2 y
=m 2
2
160 y
dt
q2
d2 y
= y2 2
160 m
dt
Notice that everything on the left hand side of the equation is constant for this problem. Let us label that
constant A, leading to a simple looking, but non-trivial differential equation.
d2 y
1 q2
A = y 2 2 , where A =
dt
160 m

The Problem in Frame 2


Now suppose that an observer moves with speed v in the negative x-direction. According to Galilean

Relativity, this is equivalent to the particles moving in the positive x-direction with speed v. First year

Figure 2: Frame 2: the observer moving to the left at speed v


physics students should know that moving particles (and only moving particles) create magnetic fields and
that only moving particles feel a force from magnetic fields. In this case, classically speaking, each particle
creates a magnetic field that the other feels. According to the Biot-Savart Law for point charges the magnetic
field created is:
B=

0 q

v r
4pr2

Students can use the right-hand rule to determine the direction of the magnetic field that each particle
creates at the position of the other particle and resolve the magnitude to be:
0 qv
0 qv
B=
2 = 16y 2
4p(2y)
Now, using to the Lorentz Force Law and another application of the right-hand rule we see that the particles
attract with a magnetic force of:

0 qv
0 q 2 v 2

FM = q
v B = qvB = qv
=
16y 2
16y 2
It is important for students to note that only the velocity in the x-direction contributes to creating magnetic
fields or feeling magnetic forces and that the magnetic force is in the opposite direction from the electric
force for both particles. The electric force is of course the same as in Frame 1, as it is not velocity dependent.
The situation is still perfectly symmetrical for both particles as required by Newtons Third Law.
Now Newtons Second Law is applied for the particle with the positive y position:
Fy = may

FE FM = may

q2
0 q 2 v 2
d2 y

=
m
160 y 2
16y 2
dt2
q2
16y 2

q2
16m

1
0 v 2
0
1
0 v 2
0

=m

d2 y
dt2

= y2

d2 y
dt2

Once again, everything on the left hand side of the equation is constant for this problem. Let us label that
constant D, leading to a nearly identical differential equation as
1.
 that in Frame

2
2
d
y
q
1
D = y 2 2 , where D =
0 v 2
dt
16m 0

The Limits of v
Now might be a good time to look at some interesting values for v. If the observer is in Frame 1 then v

= 0. In this case you will notice that D reduces to A as expected. As v increases, the magnetic attraction
continues to increase. According to this solution, if the observer moves fast enough, the particles will attract
rather than repel. We expect that your students should be raising serious objections at this point. How can
a magnetic field suddenly appear just by moving past the charges, especially since our distance from the
charges is never mentioned? Do these fields really exist? Are the particles attracting or repelling? Does it
make sense for different observers to get different results here? Before we let Einstein resolve this conundrum,
lets answer another question first. At what speed will the particles be in equilibrium such that the magnetic
force equals the electric force? When this happens, theaccelerationwill be zero, so:
q2
1
d2 y
=
0
and
0 v 2 = 0
dt2
16m 0
1
0 v 2 = 0
0
1
= 0 v 2
0
1
= v2
0 0

1
=v
0 0
5

If students have not seen the speed of light represented this way, it might be interesting to have them plug
these constants into their calculators and see the result for themselves. Either way, we will later use this
result:
0 0 =

1
c2

Einsteins Solution
Instead of living in a universe where magnetic fields both exist and do not exist, where particles both

attract and repel depending on the motion of the observer, Einstein suggests that the time between events
and the distance between events is relative. (Let us define the events for this problem as when the particles
are certain distances away from each other; y1 , y2 , etc.) Here the distance between the events is perpendicular
to the direction of relativistic motion and so should be the same for all observers. In this case, Einsteins
Special Theory of Relativity requires that the time between events may be different for each observer.
There are no magnetic fields or forces at all, rather, the faster you move relative to the particles, the more
slowly time passes for them, making them appear to repel more slowly, as if some force were attracting them
while the electric force causing them to repel. It is left only to show that Einsteins solution matches with
our known classical result.
Einstein predicts:

t = tp
Where tp is the proper time, or the time interval for Frame 1 in our example, t is the time interval for
the moving observer, and
=q

1
1

v2
c2

Recalling our previous results for the two reference frames:


d2 y
1 q2
A = y2
,
where
A
=
160 m
dtp 2
and
D = y2

d2 y
q2
, where D =
2
dt
16m

1
0 v 2
0

Instead of solving the differential equations for both reference frames, it becomes expedient to compare them
by dividing one equation by the other. (Notice the slight modification distinguishing the proper time in the
first equation.)
2

d y
y 2 dt
2
A
p
=
d2 y
2
B
y dt2

A
=
B
6

d2 y
dtp 2
d2 y
dt2

1
dtp 2
1
dt2

A
=
B
d2 ys cancel out. And we have:

A
dt2
=
B
dtp 2
Or, more suitable to our purposes,
A
=
B

t
tp

2

Returning to our actual values for the constants, A and B;


A
=
B

q2
1
160 m
q2
16m

1
0

0 v 2

=

1
0
1
0

v2

=
0

1
0

0 v 2

=

1
(1 0 0 v 2 )

Therefore,
1
=
(1 0 0 v 2 )

t
tp

2

Using a substitution from our previous result of;


1
c2
2

1
t
2 =
tp
1 vc2
0 0 =

1
t
=
v2
tp
1 c2

and we get:

t
p

This result, while not unexpected, should feel very satisfying to those desiring to understand how magnetism is really nothing more than a relativistic effect of the electric force. More importantly, we hope that
your students will come to appreciate that relativistic effects are actually a part of their every day life.