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Feynman Lectures Simplified 1C: Special Relativity and the Physics of Light

Feynman Lectures Simplified 1C: Special Relativity and the Physics of Light

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Feynman Lectures Simplified 1C: Special Relativity and the Physics of Light

304 pagine
3 ore
Apr 25, 2017


Feynman Simplified gives mere mortals access to the fabled Feynman Lectures on Physics. As a Caltech undergraduate, I had the amazing opportunity to learn physics directly from the greatest scientist of our age. I absorbed all I could. His style and enthusiasm were as important as the facts and equations.

Feynman Simplified 1C covers about a quarter of Volume 1, the freshman course, of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. The topics we explore include:

Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity
•The Principle of Relativity
•What Motivated Special Relativity?
•The Lorentz Transformation
•Length Contraction & Time Dilation
•E=mc2 & Simultaneity
•Light Cones & Causality
•Paradoxes, Puzzles, & Philosophy

The Physics of Light, including:
•Geometric Optics
•The Principle of Least Time
•Interference & Diffraction
•Feynman Sum Over Histories
•Refraction & Polarization
•Electromagnetic Radiation
•Light Scattering
•Relativistic Effects on Light

This book assumes an understanding of the material in Feynman Simplified 1A: Basic Physics. It is however, largely independent of the material in Feynman Simplified 1B.

Apr 25, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Dr Robert Piccioni is a physicist, public speaker, educator and expert on cosmology and Einstein's theories. His "Everyone's Guide Series" e-books makes the frontiers of science accessible to all. With short books focused on specific topics, readers can easily mix and match, satisfying their individual interests. Each self-contained book tells its own story. The Series may be read in any order or combination. Robert has a B.S. in Physics from Caltech, a Ph.D. in High Energy Physics from Stanford University, was a faculty member at Harvard University and did research at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in Palo Alto, Calif. He has studied with and done research with numerous Nobel Laureates. At Caltech, one of his professors was Richard Feynman, one of the most famous physicists of the 20th century, and a good family friend. Dr. Piccioni has introduced cutting-edge science to numerous non-scientific audiences, including school children and civic groups. He was guest lecturer on a National Geographic/Lindblad cruise, and has given invited talks at Harvard, Caltech, UCLA, and Stanford University.

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  • The net effect of this intricate microscopic ballet is: light moves in a straight line from A to B.

Anteprima del libro

Feynman Lectures Simplified 1C - Robert Piccioni


Chapter 25

Development of

Special Relativity

In V1p15-1, Feynman says:

For over 200 years the equations of motion enunciated by Newton were believed to describe nature correctly, and the first time that an error in these laws was discovered, the way to correct it was also discovered. Both the error and its correction were discovered by Einstein in 1905.

§25.1 Principles of Special Relativity

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is one of the most beautiful and profound theories in physics. It is also the theory that is most comprehensively and precisely confirmed by countless experiments.

The two fundamental principles from which all of special relativity derives are:

Absolute velocity has no physical significance.

The speed of light is the same for all observers.

The first statement is the principle of relativity that we discussed earlier, but described differently. The concept of relativity originated with Galileo and was incorporated into Newton’s laws. The second statement is a shocking departure from Newtonian physics, and is due entirely to Albert Einstein.

§25.2 The Principle of Relativity V1p15-1

A comprehensive statement of the principle of relativity is:

The same laws of nature apply to all observers moving at constant velocity. Absolute velocities have no significance, only relative velocities are physically meaningful.

Einstein’s general relativity removes the requirement for constant velocities, stating that nature’s laws apply universally. General relativity supersedes Newtonian gravity and correctly describes the laws of nature in accelerating reference frames.

Due to its complex mathematics, general relativity is beyond the scope of this course, but an entirely accessible introduction is available in General Relativity 1: Newton vs Einstein. Subsequent eBooks in that series will take you step-by-step to the frontier of science.

Let’s explore what the principle of relativity means with several examples.

Galileo observed that objects fall in the same manner — straight down — on a moving ship as they do on land. The modern version of this might be: if you spill your coffee while dining in an airplane, it falls straight down onto your lap even though the plane is flying at 1000 km/hr. At first, it is not surprising that coffee falls straight down; everything does. But consider how this looks from outside the airplane: the coffee is not just falling down, it is also moving forward at 1000 km/hr along with everything else in the plane, even though nothing is pushing it forward as it falls. That would have surprised Aristotle.

Consider another example: imagine two laboratories, each with a scientist and all the equipment they might desire. Stop! That is impossible; make that a lot of equipment. Seal the labs so the scientists cannot see anything or measure anything outside their own lab. Then put each lab in its own airplane, with one flying west at 500 km/hr and the other flying east at 1000 km/hr, as shown in Figure 25-1.

Figure 25-1 Scientists Cannot

Measure Their Velocities

The principle of relativity states there is no test or measurement the scientists can perform to determine their planes’ velocities. Every test they make gives exactly the same results in both planes, as long as they cannot detect anything outside their labs. They could find their planes’ speeds with GPS, but detecting an external signal is cheating.

Relativity says all observers see the same physical phenomena, the same laws of nature, regardless of their own velocities, as long as their velocities are constant.

Absolute velocity is not detectable. But we can detect when one object’s velocity changes or when two objects have different velocities. If one of the above airplanes suddenly stops (let’s not ask why), we could measure the velocity change (deceleration) with a pendulum: the pendulum would tilt toward the plane’s nose, just as airline passengers have the sensation of being pulled forward when the pilot hits the brakes after landing. Velocity changes are relative and they are physically meaningful and measurable. So are velocity differences; from the ground, we can measure an airplane's speed relative to us.

It is a very good thing that the laws of nature do not depend on our true or absolute velocity, because we do not really know what that is. You might think that while you are sitting in a chair reading this eBook your velocity is zero, but is it? As Earth spins on its axis once daily, it carries us eastward at up to 1600 km/hr (1000 mph). As Earth orbits the Sun, we are being carried along at 100,000 km/hr. As the Sun orbits the Milky Way galaxy, we are moving at 800,000 km/hr. And we are moving at 1,400,000 km/hr through the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the first light of our universe. (Learn more about the CMB in Our Universe 3: CMB, Inflation, & Dark Matter.)

So, how fast are you really moving?

An observer moving with constant velocity — constant speed and direction — is said to be in an inertial frame. Any change in speed or direction is a change of velocity, which requires acceleration. Newton’s laws of motion and special relativity are only valid in inertial frames. In inertial frames, physics is simpler, and who doesn’t want simpler physics?

Special relativity is special in that it applies only to special circumstances: those without accelerations. General relativity applies generally: to any state of motion.

§25.3 What Inspired Special Relativity?

This section contains supporting background material not included in the Feynman Lectures.

As we discussed earlier, before 1905, everyone believed that the mass of a body was constant, the same whether it was moving or not. This was consistent with all experiments of the day, and was assumed in Newton’s laws.

Einstein’s theory made the astonishing claim that a body’s mass increases at high speeds. But, for normal speeds, the mass increase predicted by Einstein is extremely small, far below the weighing precision of the day. At 30,000 miles per hour (48,000 km/h), a body’s mass increases by only one part per billion. There was no observational evidence to motivate a theory of mass increase.

Einstein’s motivation for special relativity was to make relativity and electromagnetism compatible.

Einstein’s concerns were philosophical: Maxwell had two equations for one problem.

Consider the magnet and the wire shown in Figure 25-2. If the wire moves up, through a stationary magnetic field, an electric current is induced in the wire, according to one of Maxwell’s equations.

Figure 25-2 Magnet And Wire

But, if the magnet moves down and the wire is stationary, the moving magnetic field creates an electric field that induces a current in the wire, according to a different one of Maxwell’s equations.

Both equations calculated the same current, so no one cared that there were two equations. No one, that is except Einstein.

To Einstein, these are not two different problems. There is only one problem: a wire and a magnet move relative to one another.

Einstein accepted the principle of relativity: only relative velocities have physical significance. Hence, it must make no difference whether the wire moves up or the magnet moves down. Since nature does not distinguish between the two, Einstein said, neither should physicists.

Einstein thought having two different equations for one problem was ugly, and he was sure nature is not ugly.

Others had noted that the equations of electromagnetism were not consistent with relativity. Recall the Galilean transformation, discussed in V1p15-2 and our Feynman Simplified 1A, Section §9.8, that translates coordinates measured in a stationary reference frame with those measured in a moving reference frame. Assume the two frames are perfectly aligned at time t=0, and the velocity of the moving frame is u in the +x-direction. If an object’s position has value x in the stationary frame and value X in a moving reference frame, these quantities are related by:

X = x – u t

Additionally, the measured speed of any object moving in the x-direction will be different in these two frames, as shown by taking the time derivative of the above equation:

dX/dt = dx/dt – u

Newton’s laws are equally valid in both the stationary and moving reference frames. Indeed they are valid in any frame compatible with the Galilean transformation. This is because Newton’s laws do not specify any absolute positions or velocities; they depend only on relative positions and velocities. For example, in F=GMm/r², r is the distance between M and m, not the absolute position of either. Additionally, this equation tells us how much the velocities of M and m will change, not what their absolute values will be at any specific time. Nor does the equation depend on what the absolute velocities are now.

We describe this by saying: Newton’s laws are invariant under any Galilean transformation, and are therefore consistent with the principle of relativity. This makes it impossible to determine which frame is actually moving by observing any phenomenon of mechanics — forces, work, kinetic energy, gravitational potential energy, and such.

However, Maxwell’s equations, developed in the 1860’s, are not invariant under Galilean transformations. These transformations change the form of Maxwell’s equations.  Maxwell’s equations are valid only in the frame in which light’s purported medium, the luminiferous ether, is stationary.

It appeared that physicists would be forced to choose between two seemingly wonderful pillars of physics: the principle of relativity and Maxwell’s equations. Most physicists believed someone would one day detect the luminiferous ether, forcing everyone to accept that relativity is not a universal principle.

§25.4 Search For Ether V1p15-3

Before Einstein, most physicists believed light required a medium to travel through: it was named the luminiferous ether.

For more than a century, it had been well established that light was a wave phenomenon. Light exhibits interference and diffraction behaviors that are definitive signatures of wave behavior, both of which we explore in later chapters.

All other waves were clearly the organized motions of some medium: ocean waves are the motion of water molecules; and sound waves are the motion of air molecules. What was the medium of light? What moved as light passed by? No one knew.

Physicists launched major efforts to find this undiscovered medium, often simply called ether.

It was quite clear that ether must fill the entire universe, because we can see the light of extremely distant galaxies. This is different from sound; since we cannot hear the sounds of stars and galaxies, no one claims the universe is filled with air (it is not). Hence, light and ether posed a new and unique challenge.

It was also clear that if the universe is filled with ether, we must be moving through it. People once thought Earth was the center of all existence, with everything revolving around us. Now we know that even our own galaxy is but a small part of a much greater universe.

We also know Earth is moving relative to everything else in the cosmos. It would be absurd to claim that the Earth is not moving through the ether, that somehow ether moves in lock-step with Earth.

If we do move through light’s medium, we should see light having different speeds in different directions. Why?

Consider the following analogy. When a rock is thrown into a pond, ripples spread across the water moving out at the same speed in all directions. When a rock is thrown into a river, a person on the bank sees the ripples moving faster going downriver and slower going upriver, because the current carries everything downriver. If Earth moves through the ether, a river of ether would flow past us, and we would see light’s speed being higher going downriver than upriver.

But Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism (presented in the Feynman Simplified 2 series) say the speed of light is a fixed number that is the same in all directions. Hence, Maxwell’s equations would be correct only in the frame in which the ether is not moving, which is not Earth’s frame. We could then measure our absolute velocity, our velocity relative to the ether, contradicting the principle of relativity.

Ether would make Maxwell’s equations and relativity incompatible.

Physicists set out to see if light’s speed really did vary. High precision, meticulous experiments measured light’s speed in different directions. They all found the same speed in all directions, day or night, and regardless of Earth’s position orbiting the Sun.

Experiments generally cannot prove two quantities are exactly equal; there will always be limitations to the precision of our instruments. The most that experiments can say is that two quantities are equal within a specified level of precision. If we measure two meter-sticks, we might be able to say they are the same length to 1mm. With better instruments, we might be able to say they are equal to 0.001 mm, but we can never say they are exactly the same length. While exactitude is impossible, experimental physicists can sometimes achieve amazing levels of precision.

Albert Michelson (1852 – 1931) and Edward Morley (1838 – 1923) performed the most famous of these experiments in 1887. Michelson developed the first interferometer, whose descendants are still the gold standard of precise optical measurements.

Michelson’s interferometer, illustrated below, had two orthogonal arms, each with a mirror at its far end. He sent light back and forth along each arm and very precisely measured the difference in travel time along the two paths.

Figure 25-3 Michelson-Morley


Next, Michelson rotated the entire interferometer, keeping the arms perpendicular. To minimize vibrations, the interferometer was placed on a large marble table that floated on a pool of mercury (fortunately scientists have since learned to avoid such toxic setups). He also watched his interferometer as Earth orbited the Sun, changing our motion relative to the purported ether river flowing by, as sketched in Figure 25-4.

Figure 25-4 Ether River

Flowing By Earth

If ether did exist, the light travel times would have changed as the direction of the light beams rotated through the ether. However, Michelson and Morley found no changes in travel times to a precision of 2.5% of what was expected from Earth’s orbital speed — pretty impressive.

Does this prove ether does not exist?

After Michelson and Morley published their dramatic result in 1887, theorists George FitzGerald (in 1889) and Hendrik Lorentz (in 1892) suggested that material objects are compressed as they pass through the ether. This became known as the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction, or simply the Lorentz contraction. Specifically, objects are foreshortened in the direction of motion as follows:

L = L √(1 – v² / c²)

Here L is the shortened length at velocity v, and L is the length at zero velocity. While this equation gave the needed adjustment that explained Michelson-Morley’s null result (no light speed change moving through ether), it was widely seen as contrived, having no meaningful rationale, and invented solely to plug a hole.

In 1905, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity provided a cogent and comprehensive understanding of why lengths appear contracted.

In 1907, Michelson became the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. Surprisingly, despite being acclaimed for proving Earth was not in a river of ether, Michelson continued to believe that ether really did exist. Long after Einstein’s rejection of ether became widely accepted, Michelson struggled to understand how his marvelous experiment had gone wrong. The truth is, the experiment was not wrong; it has been repeated and confirmed many times, with ever-greater precision.

The latest experiments find light’s speed is the same in all directions to a precision of 1 part in a billion, billion.

If ether does exist, why can’t we detect it?

§25.5 Einstein Understands Light

This section contains supporting background material not in the Feynman Lectures.

Einstein believed that the principle of relativity and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism were both too elegant to be wrong. He realized that if both were valid, it must be our understanding of light that is wrong. He became convinced that there is no preferred reference frame in which ether is stationary. Ether simply had to go.

Einstein radically changed our understanding of light by discovering:

Light is both a particle and a wave.

Light has no medium, unlike all other waves.

Light always travels at the same speed (through empty space).

Einstein proclaimed that light is both a particle and a wave, which led to the concept of particle-wave duality, the fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that we explore in Feynman Simplified 3A. The particles of light are called photons.

Einstein also said that, unlike all other waves, light needs no medium, such as the luminiferous ether, to travel through. Light is an electromagnetic wave that travels through empty space. It is comprised of electric and magnetic fields that oscillate — no physical object moves as light passes — as we will discuss later in Chapter 31.

For other types of waves, such as sound waves, the wave speed is determined by the properties of its medium. All sounds, whether from a human voice or an aircraft, move through air at the same speed, the speed of sound, about 1234 km/hr (768 mph) at sea level. The reason all sound waves travel at the same speed is that sound waves are the motion of air molecules, not the motion of the source: the person or aircraft.

The wave speed is also fixed relative to its medium; sound waves move at 1234 km/hr in the reference frame in which the air is stationary.

In Figure 25-5, a stationary Einstein and the pilots of two jets observe a lightning bolt. The higher jet is flying toward the lightning at 1000 km/hr, and the lower jet is flying away from the lightning at 1000 km/hr.

Figure 25-5 Lightning & Three Observers

The three observers sense thunder passing them at different speeds, which are:

  Einstein: 1234 km/sec

Upper jet: 2234 km/sec (1234 + 1000)

Lower jet:  234 km/sec (1234 – 1000)

Before 1905, physicists believed that these three observers would perceive the light flash from the lightning pass by them at different speeds, just as the sound waves do.

But, Einstein declared that light

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