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Physics Essays Volume 16, Number 1, 2003

Einstein and Space-Time Units

Minoru Harada

A grave conflicting aspect is uncovered for the conventional wisdom in relativity
theory regarding space-time units. No account has ever been taken of the undeni-
able fact that these units are contingent on nature, resulting in the present con-
vention in which the same space-time units are used in all reference frames. This
convention runs counter to Einstein’s denunciation of an absolute space and an
absolute time propounded by Newton. This conflict can be resolved only by our
recent proposal [Phys. Essays 11, 521 (1998); 12, 368 (1999)] for introducing
separate space-time units for each reference frame.

Key words: space-time units, Einstein, relativity theory, paradoxes

The most conspicuous consequence of Einstein’s In the present paper we take issue with the conven-
theory of relativity is that length and time are tion for the space-time units as usually adopted in
dependent on reference frames, which denies the relativity theory with an eye to eliminating the inconsis-
notion of an absolute space and an absolute time, as tency just mentioned. In the conventional wisdom these
was expounded by Newton. The familiar phenomena units are regarded as theoretical constructs just like
of time dilation and the Lorentz contraction are mathematical definitions. Thus no account is taken here
associated with this feature. To be more specific, the of the fact that space-time units are contingent on
spatial extension of an object and the temporal nature. For example, time units were once defined by
duration of a phenomenon take different numerical using the rotation of Earth, and nowadays they are
values depending on reference frames. As a matter of more reliably defined by utilizing the cesium atom.
course, these values are expressed in the same units in Similarly, length units were based on the meridian of
all reference frames. Moreover it is taken for granted Earth, although the present-day definition rests on
that the alteration in these numerical values represents light in addition to the cesium atom.
real physical changes, as evidenced by the apparent These circumstances clearly indicate that space-
dilation of the traveling muon’s lifetime. time units are physical quantities, implying that the
This interpretation further leads to the asymmetric use of the same length and time units in all reference
aging of twins who move relative to each other, frames is tantamount to the introduction of hypotheti-
which is believed to resolve the twin paradox. cal entities that are not subject to relativity theory.
It is noted, however, that the well-known flying- This is because space-time units can only be defined
clock experiment by Hafele and Keating(1) does not on the basis of physical entities, which are governed
provide any empirical verification of this asymmetric by relativity theory.
aging because it was recently revealed by Kelly(2) that In fact, Einstein once said,(3) “The idea of the
the results of this experiment were fabricated. measuring rod and the idea of the clock coordinated
It should also be noted that there is an indisputable with it in the theory of relativity do not find their
inconsistency in the traditional interpretation of time exact correspondence in the real world.” In other
dilation. According to this interpretation, the above- words, Einstein maintained the relativity of space and
mentioned asymmetric aging is solely due to the time measures, though he used the same name for
acceleration experienced by the traveling twin, with their units. For example, 3 “seconds” in the expres-
the relative motion at constant speed playing no role. sion of a law of nature in a stationary reference frame
In the problem of the muon’s lifetime, however, no might be called 2 “seconds” in the expression of the
acceleration is involved and the dilated lifetime is same law in a frame that is in motion relative to the
alleged to be a consequence of constant relative stationary one. The units here go by the same name of
motion, contrary to the case of the twin paradox. “seconds” in both cases.
Minoru Harada

This type of absolutism, however, is essentially the tion, thus eradicating all paradoxes in relativity
same as Newton’s idea of an absolute space and an theory, as elucidated in Refs. 5 and 6.
absolute time in that space-time units entail physical This result is only natural from our viewpoint,
entities defining these units. initiated by Sachs,(7,8) that the Lorentz transformations
On second thought, Einstein later said,(4) “... strictly simply induce the scale change of spatial or temporal
speaking, measuring rods and clocks would have to measure and have nothing to do with physical
be represented as solutions of the basic equations changes. This viewpoint is no more than the embodi-
(objects consisting of moving atomic configurations), ment of the principle of covariance, which is the basic
not, as it were, as theoretically self-sufficient entities.” premise of relativity theory.
Apparently, Einstein was on the horns of a dilemma This principle signifies that space-time transforma-
because the absolutism of space-time units collides tions are only descriptive, kinematic relations,
with the nature-contingency of the measuring rod and prescribing the rules for translating the language
the clock as implied by the latter statement. parameters from one reference frame to another so as
Strangely enough, however, Einstein did not pursue to preserve the objectivity of the expressions of the
this problem and left it as an open question: “If one laws of nature.(9)
did not wish to forego a physical interpretation of the It is noted that the separate units for each reference
coordinates in general, ... it was better to permit such frame do not imply the nonuniversality of the intrinsic
inconsistency — with the obligation, however, of properties of physical entities. The altered units only
eliminating it at a later stage of the theory.”(4) represent changes in the description of invariable
In our view, what underlies the problem perceived physical entities, depending on the reference frame.
by Einstein is the unproved assumption that space- Equations (1) and (2) have much analogy to the
time units are independent of reference frames. This exchange rate relation in economics, such as 1 U.S.
observation thus points to the need to introduce dollar = 1.5 Canadian dollars. No Americans think
separate units of length and time for each reference that they gain money by visiting Canada thanks to the
frame, as we have done in Refs. 5 and 6. relation 1 < 1.5. The same applies to the case of the
Specifically, we have introduced two types of meter muon’s lifetime. The alleged dilated lifetime for the
and second as defined by traveling muon is a consequence of the neglect of the
fact that the lifetime is expressed in different units in
1 the traveling and stationary systems; the “second”
v appearing in the proper lifetime as quoted by the
1 m-at-rest = 1 − m-in-motion, (1) stationary observer should be taken as the second-in-
motion, and the “second” used for the observed
lifetime in the stationary system should be taken as
1 the second-at-rest.
2 2 In summary, we have shown that the logical inconsis-
1 s-at-rest = 1 − s-in-motion. (2) tency hiding out in the present convention for space-
time units in relativity theory can only be eliminated by
our recent proposal(5,6) to introduce separate units of
In (1) “m-at-rest” refers to the meter to be used for length and time for each reference frame.
objects in a stationary reference frame and “m-in-
motion” refers to the meter to be applied to moving Acknowledgments
objects, when viewed from the standpoint of the I wish to dedicate this paper to my friend and
stationary observer. v is the speed of the moving colleague Mendel Sachs, who introduced me to his
reference frame and c is the speed of light. Equation (2) unparalleled but authentic philosophy of relativity,
has a similar meaning, with “s” representing second. which lies at the core of the present discussion. I first
As shown in Refs. 5 and 6, these formulas were became aware of Einstein’s statements as quoted here
derived by using the Lorentz transformations, by reading Sachs’s writings (Ref. 9). I am much
implementing our observation that space and time indebted to him for calling my attention to Ref. 9 and
units are contingent on nature. for helping me to improve the paper. He also
The salient feature of the new convention for space- translated the abstract into French for me.
time units is that it signifies that no physical changes
are involved in time dilation or the Lorentz contrac- Received 10 April 2001.
Einstein and Space-Time Units

Un aspect grave et contradictoire est découvert concernant la sagesse conven-
tionnelle de la théorie de la relativité, relativement aux éléments de l’espace-
temps. Aucun compte n’a déjà été rendu du fait indéniable que ces éléments sont
contingents de la nature, résultant dans la convention actuelle d’où les mêmes
unités d’espace-temps sont utilisées dans tous les cadres de références. Cette
convention est opposée à la dénonciation d’Einstein d’un espace absolu ainsi que
de temps absolu tels que soutenue par Newton. Cette contradiction ne peut être
résoute que par notre proposition récente [Phys. Essays 11, 521 (1998); 12, 368
(1999)] pour l’introduction d’unités d’espace-temps séparées pour chaque cadre
de référence.

References 7. M. Sachs, Einstein Versus Bohr (Open Court, La

1. J.C. Hafele and R.E. Keating, Science 177, 166, Salle, IL, 1988), Chap. 9. Also see the Japanese
168 (1972). translation by M. Harada and K. Sugimoto (Ma-
2. A.G. Kelly, Phys. Essays 13, 616 (2000). ruzen, Tokyo, 1991).
3. A. Einstein, Sidelights of Relativity (Dover, New 8. M. Sachs, Relativity in Our Time (Taylor &
York, 1983), p. 35. Francis, London, 1993), Chaps. 10 and 11. Also
4. P.A. Schilpp (editor), Albert Einstein — Philoso- see the Japanese translation by M. Harada (Nip-
pher-Scientist (Open Court, La Salle, IL, 1949). pon-Hyoronsha, Tokyo, 1998).
5. M. Harada and M. Sachs, Phys. Essays 11, 521 9. M. Sachs, Found. Phys. 15, 977 (1985); Relativ-
(1998). ity in Our Time (Taylor & Francis, London,
6. M. Harada, Phys. Essays 12, 368 (1999). 1993), pp. 77–78.

Minoru Harada
Institute of Liberal Arts
Otaru University of Commerce, Otaru
Hokkaido 047-8501 Japan