It's About Time: Understanding Einstein's Relativity

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Overview

In It's About Time, N. David Mermin asserts that relativity ought to be an important part of everyone's education—after all, it is largely about time, a subject with which all are familiar. The book reveals that some of our most intuitive notions about time are shockingly wrong, and that the real nature of time discovered by Einstein can be rigorously explained without advanced mathematics. This readable exposition of the nature of time as addressed in Einstein's theory of relativity is accessible to anyone who remembers a little high school algebra and elementary plane geometry.

The book evolved as Mermin taught the subject to diverse groups of undergraduates at Cornell University, none of them science majors, over three and a half decades. Mermin's approach is imaginative, yet accurate and complete. Clear, lively, and informal, the book will appeal to intellectually curious readers of all kinds, including even professional physicists, who will be intrigued by its highly original approach.

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Editorial Reviews

The Observatory
An excellent book on Einstein's special theory of relativity. . . . I clearly see the strength of this book in lucid, self-contained, lively, down-to-earth, and meticulous presentation. . . . I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best book on the special theory of relativity at a semi-popular level I have ever read.
— K. S. Birbhadra
Booklist
There's a profound difference between knowing about something, and knowing it, and Mermin succeeds at instilling the latter.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Simon Mitton
Mermin's premise is that everyone should know about relativity in order to understand the real nature of time. . . . What is remarkable in his approach is his reliance on developing the reader's skills to analyze events in more than one frame of reference. This is the key to understanding relativity: being able to translate with ease from one frame of reference (a moving train) to another (a station).
Nature - Derek Raine
This is a book full of insight with an engaging style. I recommend it to anyone who has to teach the subject to either [non scientists or undergraduate and graduate students]: it's a brilliant basis for a set of lecture notes.
New Scientist - Amanda Gefter
In this highly readable book, Mermin argues that a working knowledge of relativity requires no more than basic algebra and geometry. He makes a valid point. Special relativity is more fundamental, up-to-date and accurate than Newtonian physics, and Einstein's presence in the classroom may inspire the most uninterested student.
American Scientist - Peter L. Galison
It's About Time is a book that should join the very best systematic popular expositions of science written in the last 50 years.
MAA Reviews - Kara Shane Colley
Mermin has taught relativity for 40 years and has clearly thought about the best way to teach the subject. It's About Time offers a serious, yet accessible approach to relativity.
Physics Today - Nigel Dowrick
What makes the book as a whole so enjoyable to read is the steady pace at which the subject unfolds. The author spends as much time on each idea as he considers necessary. . . . Nowhere is the book too intense, and the learning curve for readers has a fairly constant slope. . . . David Mermin [is] a master teacher at work—and instructors will almost certainly include some of the ideas in their own teaching.
Foundations of Physics - Arkady Plotnitsky
Requiring nothing more than a basic understanding of algebra, [this book] provides the clearest and most insightful treatment of special relativity I've ever encountered. . . . It's About Time brings the practice and foundation of physics together through the question of time.
Mathematical Reviews - Jaume J. Carot
The reader will find some of the best non-technical description of the special theory of relativity ever written.
The Observatory - K.S. Birbhadra
An excellent book on Einstein's special theory of relativity. . . . I clearly see the strength of this book in lucid, self-contained, lively, down-to-earth, and meticulous presentation. . . . I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best book on the special theory of relativity at a semi-popular level I have ever read.
" Booklist bert Taylor

There's a profound difference between knowing about something, and knowing it, and Mermin succeeds at instilling the latter.
MAA Reviews - Kara shane Colley
Mermin has taught relativity for 40 years and has clearly thought about the best way to teach the subject. It's About Time offers a serious, yet accessible approach to relativity.
The Observatory - K. S. Birbhadra
An excellent book on Einstein's special theory of relativity. . . . I clearly see the strength of this book in lucid, self-contained, lively, down-to-earth, and meticulous presentation. . . . I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best book on the special theory of relativity at a semi-popular level I have ever read.
Times Higher Education Supplement
Mermin's premise is that everyone should know about relativity in order to understand the real nature of time. . . . What is remarkable in his approach is his reliance on developing the reader's skills to analyze events in more than one frame of reference. This is the key to understanding relativity: being able to translate with ease from one frame of reference (a moving train) to another (a station).
— Simon Mitton
Nature
This is a book full of insight with an engaging style. I recommend it to anyone who has to teach the subject to either [non scientists or undergraduate and graduate students]: it's a brilliant basis for a set of lecture notes.
— Derek Raine
American Scientist
It's About Time is a book that should join the very best systematic popular expositions of science written in the last 50 years.
— Peter L. Galison
New Scientist
In this highly readable book, Mermin argues that a working knowledge of relativity requires no more than basic algebra and geometry. He makes a valid point. Special relativity is more fundamental, up-to-date and accurate than Newtonian physics, and Einstein's presence in the classroom may inspire the most uninterested student.
— Amanda Gefter
MAA Reviews
Mermin has taught relativity for 40 years and has clearly thought about the best way to teach the subject. It's About Time offers a serious, yet accessible approach to relativity.
— Kara shane Colley
Physics Today
What makes the book as a whole so enjoyable to read is the steady pace at which the subject unfolds. The author spends as much time on each idea as he considers necessary. . . . Nowhere is the book too intense, and the learning curve for readers has a fairly constant slope. . . . David Mermin [is] a master teacher at work—and instructors will almost certainly include some of the ideas in their own teaching.
— Nigel Dowrick
Foundations of Physics
Requiring nothing more than a basic understanding of algebra, [this book] provides the clearest and most insightful treatment of special relativity I've ever encountered. . . . It's About Time brings the practice and foundation of physics together through the question of time.
— Arkady Plotnitsky
Mathematical Reviews
The reader will find some of the best non-technical description of the special theory of relativity ever written.
— Jaume J. Carot
Nature
This is a book full of insight with an engaging style. I recommend it to anyone who has to teach the subject to either [non scientists or undergraduate and graduate students]: it's a brilliant basis for a set of lecture notes.
— Derek Raine
Times Higher Education Supplement
Mermin's premise is that everyone should know about relativity in order to understand the real nature of time. . . . What is remarkable in his approach is his reliance on developing the reader's skills to analyze events in more than one frame of reference. This is the key to understanding relativity: being able to translate with ease from one frame of reference (a moving train) to another (a station).
— Simon Mitton
From the Publisher
"Mermin's premise is that everyone should know about relativity in order to understand the real nature of time. . . . What is remarkable in his approach is his reliance on developing the reader's skills to analyze events in more than one frame of reference. This is the key to understanding relativity: being able to translate with ease from one frame of reference (a moving train) to another (a station)."—Simon Mitton, Times Higher Education Supplement

"This is a book full of insight with an engaging style. I recommend it to anyone who has to teach the subject to either [non scientists or undergraduate and graduate students]: it's a brilliant basis for a set of lecture notes."—Derek Raine, Nature

"In this highly readable book, Mermin argues that a working knowledge of relativity requires no more than basic algebra and geometry. He makes a valid point. Special relativity is more fundamental, up-to-date and accurate than Newtonian physics, and Einstein's presence in the classroom may inspire the most uninterested student."—Amanda Gefter, New Scientist

"It's About Time is a book that should join the very best systematic popular expositions of science written in the last 50 years."—Peter L. Galison, American Scientist

"There's a profound difference between knowing about something, and knowing it, and Mermin succeeds at instilling the latter."—Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"Mermin has taught relativity for 40 years and has clearly thought about the best way to teach the subject. It's About Time offers a serious, yet accessible approach to relativity."—Kara shane Colley, MAA Reviews

"What makes the book as a whole so enjoyable to read is the steady pace at which the subject unfolds. The author spends as much time on each idea as he considers necessary. . . . Nowhere is the book too intense, and the learning curve for readers has a fairly constant slope. . . . David Mermin [is] a master teacher at work—and instructors will almost certainly include some of the ideas in their own teaching."—Nigel Dowrick, Physics Today

"Requiring nothing more than a basic understanding of algebra, [this book] provides the clearest and most insightful treatment of special relativity I've ever encountered. . . . It's About Time brings the practice and foundation of physics together through the question of time."—Arkady Plotnitsky, Foundations of Physics

"The reader will find some of the best non-technical description of the special theory of relativity ever written."—Jaume J. Carot, Mathematical Reviews

"An excellent book on Einstein's special theory of relativity. . . . I clearly see the strength of this book in lucid, self-contained, lively, down-to-earth, and meticulous presentation. . . . I have no hesitation in saying that this is the best book on the special theory of relativity at a semi-popular level I have ever read."—K. S. Birbhadra, The Observatory

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691122014
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/12/2005
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,297,718
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author


N. David Mermin is a theoretical physicist who has worked in solid state physics, low temperature physics, statistical physics, crystallography, and foundations of quantum mechanics. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and won the first Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical society for "his remarkable clarity and wit as a lecturer to nonspecialists on difficult subjects." His books include "Solid State Physics, Boojums All the Way Through", and "Space and Time in Special Relativity".
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Read an Excerpt

It's About Time

Understanding Einstein's Relativity
By N. David Mermin

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12201-4


Chapter One

THE PRINCIPLE OF RELATIVITY

THE SPECIAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY was set forth by Einstein in his 1905 paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies." The term "special relativity" is used to distinguish the theory from Einstein's theory of gravity, known as general relativity, which he completed ten years later. Except for a glimpse into general relativity in chapter 12, we shall be concerned entirely with special relativity, so from now on I will drop the "special," with the understanding that "relativity" always refers to special relativity.

Einstein based the theory of relativity on two postulates. The first is now known as the principle of relativity. We shall take up the second in chapter 3. Einstein put the principle of relativity this way: "In electromagnetism as well as in mechanics, phenomena have no properties corresponding to the concept of absolute rest."

He might have stated it more briefly, and more generally, as "No phenomena have properties corresponding to the concept of absolute rest." The reason electromagnetism and mechanics get into Einstein's formulation is that the principle of relativity was already a well-known feature of mechanics. It was first enunciated by Galileo,three centuries earlier, and was built into the classical mechanics of Newton. In 1905, however, there was considerable confusion over whether the principle was applicable to electromagnetic phenomena. This accounts for the peculiar title of Einstein's paper, and his emphasis that the principle applied to both mechanical and electromagnetic phenomena. I would guess that he did not explicitly insist that the principle of relativity applied to all phenomena because in 1905 it was still possible to believe that mechanics (and gravity, often viewed at that time as a part of mechanics) and electromagnetism encompassed all the phenomena of nature. Today we know that there are other phenomena (mentioned in chapter 13), but we believe that the principle of relativity applies to all of them.

In this chapter we shall elaborate Einstein's concise statement of the principle of relativity, and then explore how the principle can be used to discover some elementary but not entirely obvious facts about how things behave. A really careful statement of the principle raises some quite subtle conceptual issues, which we will note but scrupulously avoid examining in any depth. Such a philosophical study can be entertaining, but it is distracting and of no importance for establishing a working understanding of relativity.

What is important is to acquire a sense of how to use the principle as a practical tool for enlarging one's understanding of the behavior of moving objects. Using the principle of relativity in such a way may at first be a little unfamiliar, but learning how to do it is quite unrelated to the physical and philosophical subtleties stirred up by an effort to acquire a "deep" understanding of the principle. If one wishes to understand the spectacular and counterintuitive consequences of the straightforward applications of the principle in Einstein's theory of relativity, it is essential to learn first how to apply it to some simpler, less surprising cases.

The principle of relativity is an example of an invariance principle. There are several such principles. They all begin with the phrase "All other things being the same." Then they go on to say:

1. it doesn't matter where you are. (Principle of translational invariance in space)

2. it doesn't matter when you are. (Principle of translational invariance in time)

3. it doesn't matter how you are oriented. (Principle of rotational invariance)

The principle of relativity fits into the same pattern: All other things being the same,

4. it doesn't matter how fast you're going if you're moving with fixed speed along a straight line. (Principle of relativity)

"It doesn't matter" means "the rules for the description of natural phenomena are the same." For example the rule describing Newton's force of gravity between two chunks of matter is the same whether they are in this galaxy or another (translational invariance in space). It is also the same today as it was a million years ago (translational invariance in time). The law does not work differently depending on whether one chunk is east or north of the other one (rotational invariance). Nor does the law have to be changed depending on whether you measure the force between the two chunks in a railroad station, or do the same experiment with the two chunks on a uniformly moving train (principle of relativity).

"All other things being the same" raises deep questions. In the case of translational invariance, it means that when you move the experiment to a new place or time you have to move everything relevant; in the case of rotational invariance you have to turn everything relevant. In the case of the principle of relativity, you have to set everything relevant into motion. If everything relevant turned out to be the entire universe, you might wonder whether there was any content to the principle.

One can thus descend immediately into a deep philosophical abyss from which some never emerge. We shall not do this. We are interested in how such principles work on the practical level, where they are usually unproblematic. You easily can state a small number of relevant things that have to be the same and that is quite enough. When the principle doesn't work, invariably you discover that you have overlooked something else simple that is also relevant. Not only does that fix things up, but often you learn something new about nature that proves useful in many entirely different contexts. If, for example, the stillness of the air was important for the experiment you did in the railroad station, then you had better be sure that when you do the experiment on a uniformly moving train that you do not do it on an open flatcar, where there is a wind, so all other relevant things are not the same. You must do it in an enclosed car with the windows shut. If you hadn't realized that the stillness of the air was important in the station, then the apparent failure of the experiment to work the same way on the open flatcar would teach you that it was.

Invariance principles are useful because they permit us to extend our knowledge to new situations. It is on that quite practical level that we shall be interested in the principle of relativity. It tells us that no experiments that we do can enable us to distinguish between our being in a state of rest or a state of uniform motion. Any set of experiments we perform in a laboratory we choose to regard as being stationary must give exactly the same results as a corresponding set of experiments performed in a laboratory moving uniformly with respect to the first one. The results we get in the new situation, doing experiments in the uniformly moving laboratory, can be inferred from the results we found in the old situation, doing experiments in the stationary laboratory.

It is important both to understand what the principle asserts and to acquire some skill in using it to extend knowledge from one situation to another. But on a deeper level, one can again get bogged down in subtle questions. What do we mean by rest or by uniform motion? We will again take a practical view. Uniform motion means moving with a fixed speed in a fixed direction. More compactly, we say moving with a fixed velocity. The term "velocity" embraces both speed and direction of motion. Two boats moving 15 feet per second (f/sec), one going north and the other east, have the same speed but different velocities. I digress to remark that the foot (plural "feet") is a unit of distance (abbreviated "f"), still used in backward nations, equal to 30.48 centimeters. In this book it will be highly convenient to redefine the "foot" to be just a little shorter than the conventional English foot: about 30 centimeters (or, more precisely, 29.9798452 centimeters-98.36 percent of a conventional foot). The reasons for this redefinition will emerge in chapter 3.

It is useful to adopt the convention that a negative velocity in a given direction means exactly the same thing as the corresponding positive velocity in the opposite direction: -10 f/sec east is exactly the same as 10 f/sec west. Note also that in the definition of uniform motion, a fixed direction is just as important as a fixed speed: something moving with fixed speed on a circular path is not moving uniformly.

A state of nonuniform motion can easily be distinguished from a state of rest or uniform motion. You can clearly tell the difference between being in a plane moving at uniform velocity and being in a plane moving in turbulent air; between being in a car moving at uniform velocity and in one that is accelerating or cutting a sharp curve or on a bumpy road or screeching to a halt. But you cannot tell the difference (without looking out the window) between being on a plane flying smoothly through the air at 600 f/sec and being on a plane that is stationary on the ground.

In working with the principle of relativity, one uses the term frame of reference. A frame of reference (often simply called a "frame") is the system in terms of which you have chosen to describe things. For example, a flight attendant walks toward the front of the airplane at 3 f/sec in the frame of reference of the airplane. You start at the rear of the plane and want to catch up with him so you walk at 6 f/sec in the frame of the plane. If the plane is going at 700 f/sec, then in the frame of reference of the ground this would be described by saying that the cabin attendant was moving forward at 703 f/sec, and you caught up by increasing your speed from 700 to 706 f/sec. One of the many remarkable things about relativity is how much one can learn from considerations of this apparently banal variety.

Another important term is inertial frame of reference. "Inertial" means stationary or uniformly moving. A rotating frame of reference is not inertial, nor is one that oscillates back and forth. We will almost always be interested only in inertial frames of reference and will omit the term inertial except when we wish to contrast uniformly moving frames of reference to frames that move nonuniformly.

How do you know that a frame of reference is inertial? This is just another way of posing the deep question of how you know motion is uniform. It would appear that you have to be given at least one inertial frame of reference to begin with, since otherwise you can ask "Moving uniformly with respect to what?" Thus if we know that the frame in which a railroad station stands still is an inertial frame, then the frame of any train moving uniformly through the station is also an inertial frame. But how do we know that the frame of reference of the station is inertial?

Fortunately, there is a simple physical test for whether a frame is inertial. In an inertial frame, stationary objects on which no forces act remain stationary. It is this failure of a stationary object (you) to remain stationary (you are thrown about in your seat) that lets you know when the plane or car you are riding in (and the frame of reference it defines) is moving uniformly and when it is not. In our cheerfully pragmatic spirit, we will set aside the deep question of how you can know that no forces act. We will be content to stick with our intuitive sense of when the motion of an airplane (train, car) is or is not capable of making us seasick.

When specifying a frame of reference you can sometimes fall into the following trap: suppose you have a ball that (in the frame of reference you are using) is stationary before 12 noon, moves to the right at 3 f/sec between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m., and to the left at 4 f/sec after 1 p.m. By "the frame of reference of X" (also called the proper frame of X), one means the frame in which X is stationary. Now there is no inertial frame of reference in which the ball is stationary throughout its whole history. If you want to identify an inertial frame of reference as "the frame of reference of the ball," you must be sure to specify whether you mean the inertial frame in which the ball was stationary before 12, or between 12 and 1, or after 1. Depending on the time, three different inertial frames can serve as the frame of reference of the ball. Similarly for the Cannonball Express, which defines one inertial frame of reference as it zooms along a straight track at 150 f/sec from New York to Chicago, and quite another as it zooms along the same track at the same speed on the way back. The frame of reference of an airplane buffeted by high winds may never be inertial. Nor is the frame of reference of the Cannonball as it moves with fixed speed along a curved stretch of track.

Here is another, more subtle trap that many people (including, I suspect, some physicists) fall into: people sometimes take the principle of relativity to mean, loosely speaking, that the behavior of a uniformly moving object should not depend on how fast it is moving, or, to put it slightly differently, that motion with uniform velocity cannot affect any properties of an object. This is simply wrong. The principle of relativity only requires that if an object has certain properties in a frame of reference in which the object is stationary, then if the same object moves uniformly, it will have the same properties in a frame of reference that moves uniformly with it.

But the properties that an object can have in a fixed frame of reference can certainly depend on the speed with which it moves uniformly in that frame. To take a silly example, when the object moves it has a nonzero speed, but when it is stationary its speed is zero. You could, of course, object that speed is not a property inherent in an object, but specifies a relation between the object and the frame of reference in which it has that speed. This is fine. But the nature of the trap is then that many properties that might appear to be inherent in an object turn out, on closer examination, to be relational. We shall see many examples of this.

A less trivial example is provided by the Doppler effect. If a yellow light moves away from you at an enormous speed, the color you see changes from yellow to red; if it moves toward you at an enormous speed, the color changes from yellow to blue. So the color of an object in a fixed frame of reference can depend on whether it is moving or at rest, and in what direction it is moving. What the principle of relativity does guarantee is that if a light is seen to be yellow when it is stationary, then when it moves with uniform velocity it will still be seen as yellow by somebody who moves with that same velocity.

We shall be almost exclusively interested in some simple practical applications of the principle of relativity. To apply the principle, it is essential to acquire the ability to visualize how events look when viewed from different inertial frames of reference. A useful mental device for doing this is to examine how a single set of events would be described by various people moving past them, in trains moving uniformly with different speeds.

We will be applying the principle of relativity to learn some quite extraordinary things by examining the same sets of events in different frames of reference. Some of the things we shall learn in this way are so surprising that they are hard to believe at first. You are more likely to conclude that you must have made a mistake in applying the principle. So it is quite essential to begin by acquiring some skill in using the principle of relativity to learn some things that you might not have known before, which, though not obvious, are also not astonishing. The general procedure for doing this is always the same: Take a situation which you don't fully understand. Find a new frame of reference in which you do understand it. Examine it in that new frame of reference. Then translate your understanding in the new frame back into the language of the old one.

Here is a very simple example. Newton's first law of motion states that in the absence of an external force a uniformly moving body continues to move uniformly. This law follows from the principle of relativity and a very much simpler law. The simpler law merely states that in the absence of an external force a stationary body continues to remain stationary.

To see how the more general law is a consequence of the simpler one, suppose we only know the simpler law. The principle of relativity tells us that it must be true in all inertial frames of reference. If we want to learn about the subsequent behavior of a ball initially moving at 50 f/sec in the absence of an external force, all we have to do is find an inertial frame of reference in which we can apply the simpler law. The frame we need is clearly the one that moves at 50 f/sec in the same direction as the ball, since in that frame of reference the ball is stationary. To put it more concretely, think of how the ball looks from a train moving at 50 f/sec alongside it. In the frame of reference of the train, the ball is stationary and we can apply the law that in the absence of an external force a stationary body remains stationary. But anything that is stationary in the train frame moves at 50 f/sec in the frame of reference in which we originally posed the problem. We conclude that since the ball remains stationary in the train frame in the absence of an external force, in the original frame it must continue to move at 50 f/sec in the absence of an external force.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from It's About Time by N. David Mermin Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Why Another Relativity Book ix

Note to Readers xiv

Chapter One: The Principle of Relativity 1

Chapter Two: Combining (Small)Velocities 14

Chapter Three: The Speed of Light 19

Chapter Four: Combining (Any)Velocities 28

Chapter Five: Simultaneous Events;Synchronized Clocks 45

Chapter Six: Moving Clocks Run Slowly;Moving Sticks Shrink 58

Chapter Seven: Looking At a Moving Clock 73

Chapter Eight: The Interval between Events 79

Chapter Nine: Trains of Rockets 89

Chapter Ten: Space-Time Geometry 102

Chapter Eleven: E =M2 144

Chapter Twelve: A Bit about General Relativity 171

Chapter Thirteen: What Makes It Happen? 179

Index 187

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