Introduction To Special Relativity
In physics, special relativity is a fundamental theory concerning space and time, developed by Albert Einstein in 1905 as a modification of Galilean relativity. (See "History of special relativity" for a detailed account and the contributions of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré.) The theory was able to explain some pressing theoretical and experimental issues in the physics of the time involving light and electrodynamics, such as the failure of the 1887 Michelson–Morley experiment, which aimed to measure differences in the relative speed of light due to the Earth's motion through the hypothetical, and now discredited, luminiferous aether. The aether was then considered to be the medium of propagation of electromagnetic waves such as light.
Einstein postulated that the speed of light in free space is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the light source, where we may think of an observer as an imaginary entity with a sophisticated set of measurement devices, at rest with respect to itself, that perfectly record the positions and times of all events in space and time. This postulate stemmed from the assumption that Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, which predict a specific speed of light in a vacuum, hold in any inertial frame of reference rather than, as was previously believed, just in the frame of the aether. This prediction contradicted the laws of classical mechanics, which had been accepted for centuries, by arguing that time and space are not fixed and in fact change to maintain a constant speed of light regardless of the relative motions of sources and observers. Einstein's approach was based on thought experiments, calculations, and the principle of relativity, which is the notion that all physical laws should appear the same (that is, take the same basic form) to all inertial observers. Today, scientists are so comfortable with the idea that the speed of light is always the same that the metre is now defined as "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second." This means that the speed of light is by convention 299 792 458 m/s (approximately 1.079 billion kilometres per hour, or 671 million miles per hour).
The predictions of special relativity are almost identical to those of Galilean relativity for most everyday phenomena, in which speeds are much lower than the speed of light, but it makes different, non-obvious predictions for objects moving at very high speeds. These predictions have been experimentally tested on numerous occasions since the theory's inception and were confirmed by those experiments. The first such prediction described by Einstein is the relativity of simultaneity; observers who are in motion with respect to each other may disagree on whether two events occurred at the same time or one occurred before the other. The other major predictions of special relativity are time dilation (an observer watching two identical clocks, one moving and one at rest, will measure the moving clock to tick more slowly), length contraction (along the direction of motion, a rod moving with respect to an observer will be measured to be shorter than an identical rod at rest), and the equivalence of mass and energy (written as E = mc2). Special relativity predicts a non-linear velocity addition formula which prevents speeds greater than that of light from being observed. In 1908, Hermann Minkowski reformulated the theory based on different postulates of a more geometrical nature. This approach considers space and time as being different components of a single entity, the spacetime, which is "divided" in different ways by observers in relative motion. Likewise, energy and momentum are the components of the four-momentum, and the electric and magnetic field are the components of the electromagnetic tensor.
As Galilean relativity is now considered an approximation of special relativity valid for low speeds, special relativity is considered an approximation of the theory of general relativity valid for weak gravitational fields. General relativity postulates that physical laws should appear the same to all observers (an accelerating frame of reference being equivalent to one in which a gravitational field acts), and that gravitation is the effect of the curvature of spacetime caused by energy (including mass).
Read more about Introduction To Special Relativity: Reference Frames and Galilean Relativity: A Classical Prelude, Classical Physics and Electromagnetism, Invariance of Length: The Euclidean Picture, The Minkowski Formulation: Introduction of Spacetime, Reference Frames and Lorentz Transformations: Relativity Revisited, Einstein's Postulate: The Constancy of The Speed of Light, Clock Delays and Rod Contractions: More On Lorentz Transformations, Simultaneity and Clock Desynchronisation, General Relativity: A Peek Forward, Mass–energy Equivalence: Sunlight and Atom Bombs, Applications, The Postulates of Special Relativity
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