## Equation of the Day #9: Time Dilation and Length Contraction

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Special Relativity, Einstein
**Akano Toa of Electricity**, in Math/Physics Mar 04 2014 · 174 views**Today I want to talk about something awesome: Special Relativity. It's a theory that was developed by this guy you may have heard of, Albert Einstein, and it's from this theory that arguably the most famous equation in physics, E = mc**

First and foremost, the main fact from which the rest of SR falls out is the fact that

Wait, how can that be? This idea originally came from Maxwell's equations, which govern electromagnetism. When you solve these equations, you can put them into a form that results in a wave equation, and the speed of those waves is equal to that of light. This finding brought on the realization that light is an electromagnetic wave! But here's the interesting thing: Maxwell's equations do not assume any particular frame of reference, so the speed of the waves governed by Maxwell's equations have the same speed

Now, we're still in a bit of a pickle; if all observers see light traveling at the same speed, how do things other than light move? Think about it. If you're driving down the highway at 60 mph and the car next to you is driving 65 mph, they appear to be moving 5 mph faster than you, don't they? So why doesn't this work with light? If I'm traveling 5 mph, shouldn't I see light moving 5 mph slower than normal? No; the problem here isn't that the speed of light is the same for all observers, but the fact that we think relative velocities add up normally. In fact, this relative velocity addition is simply a very good approximation for objects that are much, much slower than light, but it is not complete.

The answer to this conundrum is that length and time are different for observers traveling at different velocities. These two principles are governed by the equations

^{2}, comes from. I'm not going to talk about E = mc^{2}today (in fact, I've already talked about it, but it's not the whole story!), but I wanted to talk about two other cool consequences of Special Relativity (SR), time dilation and length contraction.First and foremost, the main fact from which the rest of SR falls out is the fact that

*the speed of light is the same for all observers moving with constant velocity, regardless of what those velocities may be*. Running at 5 m/s? You see light traveling at the same speed as someone traveling 99 % the speed of light.Wait, how can that be? This idea originally came from Maxwell's equations, which govern electromagnetism. When you solve these equations, you can put them into a form that results in a wave equation, and the speed of those waves is equal to that of light. This finding brought on the realization that light is an electromagnetic wave! But here's the interesting thing: Maxwell's equations do not assume any particular frame of reference, so the speed of the waves governed by Maxwell's equations have the same speed

*in all reference frames*. Thus, it makes sense from an electromagnetic point of view that the speed of light shouldn't depend on how fast someone is traveling!Now, we're still in a bit of a pickle; if all observers see light traveling at the same speed, how do things other than light move? Think about it. If you're driving down the highway at 60 mph and the car next to you is driving 65 mph, they appear to be moving 5 mph faster than you, don't they? So why doesn't this work with light? If I'm traveling 5 mph, shouldn't I see light moving 5 mph slower than normal? No; the problem here isn't that the speed of light is the same for all observers, but the fact that we think relative velocities add up normally. In fact, this relative velocity addition is simply a very good approximation for objects that are much, much slower than light, but it is not complete.

The answer to this conundrum is that length and time are different for observers traveling at different velocities. These two principles are governed by the equations

**The first equation determines time dilation, and the second equation determines length contraction, when shifting from a frame moving at speed**

*v*

**to a frame moving at speed**

*v'*

**(**

*β*

**and**

*γ*

**are both physical parameters that depend on the velocity of the frame in question and the speed of light,**

*c***). From the first equation, we can see that the faster someone is moving in frame**

*S*

**(moving at speed**

*v*

**), the slower their clock ticks away the seconds in frame**

*S'*

**(moving at speed**

*v'*

**) and the more squished they look (in the direction that they're traveling). These ideas are the basis for the famous "barn and pole" paradox. Suppose someone is holding a pole of length**

*L*

**and is running into a barn, which from door-to-door has a length slightly longer than**

*L*

**. If the person runs fast enough, an outside observer will see that the person running with the pole will completely disappear into the barn before emerging from the other side. But from the runner's frame of reference, the barn is what is moving really fast, and so**

*the barn*appears shorter than it did to the outside observer. This means that, in the runner's frame, a part of the pole is always outside of the barn, and thus he is always exposed.**What if the observer outside the barn had the exit door closed and the entrance door open and rigs it such that when the runner is completely inside the barn, the entrance door closes and the exit door opens? Well, in the outside observer's frame, this is what happens; the entrance door closing and the exit door opening are simultaneous events. But in the runner's frame, there is no way for him to fit inside the barn, so does the door close on the pole? No, because the physics of what happens has to be the same in both frames; either the door shuts on the pole or it doesn't. So, in the runner's frame, the entrance door closing and the exit door opening**

*are not simultaneous events*! In fact, the exit door opens*before*the entrance door closes in the runner's frame. This is due to the time dilation effect of special relativity: simultaneous events in one reference frame need not be simultaneous in other frames!**Special relativity is a very rich topic that I hope to delve into more in the future, but for now I'll leave you with this awesome bit of cool physics.**