Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

Distortion of Time and Space


Consider the situation shown in figure f. Aboard a rocket ship we have a tube with mirrors at the ends. If we let off a flash of light at the bottom of the tube, it will be reflected back and forth between the top and bottom. It can be used as a clock; by counting the number of times the light goes back and forth we get an indication of how much time has passed: up-down up-down, tick-tock ticktock. (This may not seem very practical, but a real atomic clock does work on essentially the same principle.) Now imagine that the rocket is cruising at a significant fraction of the speed of light relative to the earth. Motion is relative, so for a person inside the rocket, f/1, there is no detectable change in the behavior of the clock, just as a person on a jet plane can toss a ball up and down without noticing anything unusual. But to an observer in the earth's frame of reference, the light appears to take a zigzag path through space, f/2, increasing the distance the light has to travel.

f / A light beam bounces between two mirrors in a spaceship.

If we didn't believe in the principle of relativity, we could say that the light just goes faster according to the earthbound observer. Indeed, this would be correct if the speeds were much less than the speed of light, and if the thing traveling back and forth was, say, a ping-pong ball. But according to the principle of relativity, the speed of light must be the same in both frames of reference. We are forced to conclude that time is distorted, and the light-clock appears to run more slowly than normal as seen by the earthbound observer. In general, a clock appears to run most quickly for observers who are in the same state of motion as the clock, and runs more slowly as perceived by observers who are moving relative to the clock.

We can easily calculate the size of this time-distortion effect. In the frame of reference shown in figure f/1, moving with the spaceship, let t be the time required for the beam of light to move from the bottom to the top. An observer on the earth, who sees the situation shown in figure f/2, disagrees, and says this motion took a longer time T (a bigger letter for the bigger time). Let v be the velocity of the spaceship relative to the earth. In frame 2, the light beam travels along the hypotenuse of a right triangle, figure g, whose base has length

base = vT .

Observers in the two frames of reference agree on the vertical distance traveled by the beam, i.e., the height of the triangle perceived in frame 2, and an observer in frame 1 says that this height is the distance covered by a light beam in time t, so the height is

height = ct ,

where c is the speed of light. The hypotenuse of this triangle is the distance the light travels in frame 2,

hypotenuse = cT .

Using the Pythagorean theorem, we can relate these three quantities,

(cT)2 = (vT)2 + (ct)2 , and solving for T, we find

The amount of distortion is given by the factor

and this quantity appears so often that we give it a special name, γ (Greek letter gamma),

g / One observer says the light went a distance cT, while the other says it only had to travel ct.

Self-Check What is when v = 0? What does this mean?
Answer At v=0, we get γ = 1, so t = T. There is no time distortion unless the two frames of reference are in relative motion.

We are used to thinking of time as absolute and universal, so it is disturbing to find that it can flow at a different rate for observers in different frames of reference. But consider the behavior of the γ factor shown in figure h. The graph is extremely flat at low speeds, and even at 20% of the speed of light, it is difficult to see anything happening to γ . In everyday life, we never experience speeds that are more than a tiny fraction of the speed of light, so this strange strange relativistic effect involving time is extremely small. This makes sense: Newton's laws have already been thoroughly tested by experiments at such speeds, so a new theory like relativity must agree with the old one in their realm of common applicability. This requirement of backwards-compatibility is known as the correspondence principle.

h / The behavior of the factor.


The speed of light is supposed to be the same in all frames of reference, and a speed is a distance divided by a time. We can't change time without changing distance, since then the speed couldn't come out the same. If time is distorted by a factor of , then lengths must also be distorted according to the same ratio. An object in motion appears longest to someone who is at rest with respect to it, and is shortened along the direction of motion as seen by other observers.

No simultaneity

Part of the concept of absolute time was the assumption that it was valid to say things like, "I wonder what my uncle in Beijing is doing right now." In the nonrelativistic world-view, clocks in Los Angeles and Beijing could be synchronized and stay synchronized, so we could unambiguously define the concept of things happening simultaneously in different places. It is easy to find examples, however, where events that seem to be simultaneous in one frame of reference are not simultaneous in another frame. In figure i, a flash of light is set off in the center of the rocket's cargo hold. According to a passenger on the rocket, the parts of the light traveling forward and backward have equal distances to travel to reach the front and back walls, so they get there simultaneously. But an outside observer who sees the rocket cruising by at high speed will see the flash hit the back wall first, because the wall is rushing up to meet it, and the forward-going part of the flash hit the front wall later, because the wall was running away from it.

i / Different observers don't agree that the flashes of light hit the front and back of the ship simultaneously.

We conclude that simultaneity is not a well-defined concept. This idea may be easier to accept if we compare time with space. Even in plain old Galilean relativity, points in space have no identity of their own: you may think that two events happened at the same point in space, but anyone else in a differently moving frame of reference says they happened at different points in space. For instance, suppose you tap your knuckles on your desk right now, count to five, and then do it again. In your frame of reference, the taps happened at the same location in space, but according to an observer on Mars, your desk was on the surface of a planet hurtling through space at high speed, and the second tap was hundreds of kilometers away from the first.

Relativity says that time is the same way - both simultaneity and "simulplaceity" are meaningless concepts. Only when the relative velocity of two frames is small compared to the speed of light will observers in those frames agree on the simultaneity of events.

j / In the garage's frame of reference, 1, the bus is moving, and can fit in the garage. In the bus's frame of reference, the garage is moving, and can't hold the bus.

The garage paradox

One of the most famous of all the so-called relativity paradoxes has to do with our incorrect feeling that simultaneity is well defined. The idea is that one could take a schoolbus and drive it at relativistic speeds into a garage of ordinary size, in which it normally would not fit. Because of the length contraction, the bus would supposedly fit in the garage. The paradox arises when we shut the door and then quickly slam on the brakes of the bus. An observer in the garage's frame of reference will claim that the bus fit in the garage because of its contracted length. The driver, however, will perceive the garage as being contracted and thus even less able to contain the bus. The paradox is resolved when we recognize that the concept of fitting the bus in the garage "all at once" contains a hidden assumption, the assumption that it makes sense to ask whether the front and back of the bus can simultaneously be in the garage. Observers in different frames of reference moving at high relative speeds do not necessarily agree on whether things happen simultaneously. The person in the garage's frame can shut the door at an instant he perceives to be simultaneous with the front bumper's arrival at the opposite wall of the garage, but the driver would not agree about the simultaneity of these two events, and would perceive the door as having shut long after she plowed through the back wall.


Nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

What happens if we want to send a rocket ship off at, say, twice the speed of light, v = 2c? Then γ will be 1/√-3. But your math teacher has always cautioned you about the severe penalties for taking the square root of a negative number. The result would be physically meaningless, so we conclude that no object can travel faster than the speed of light. Even travel exactly at the speed of light appears to be ruled out for material objects, since γ would then be infinite.

Einstein had therefore found a solution to his original paradox about riding on a motorcycle alongside a beam of light. The paradox is resolved because it is impossible for the motorcycle to travel at the speed of light.

Most people, when told that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, immediately begin to imagine methods of violating the rule. For instance, it would seem that by applying a constant force to an object for a long time, we would give it a constant acceleration which would eventually result in its traveling faster than the speed of light. We'll take up these issues in section 1.3.

Cosmic-ray muons

A classic experiment to demonstrate time distortion uses observations of cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are protons and other atomic nuclei from outer space. When a cosmic ray happens to come the way of our planet, the first earth-matter it encounters is an air molecule in the upper atmosphere. This collision then creates a shower of particles that cascade downward and can often be detected at the earth's surface. One of the more exotic particles created in these cosmic ray showers is the muon (named after the Greek letter mu, μ). The reason muons are not a normal part of our environment is that a muon is radioactive, lasting only 2.2 microseconds on the average before changing itself into an electron and two neutrinos. A muon can therefore be used as a sort of clock, albeit a self-destructing and somewhat random one! Figures k and l show the average rate at which a sample of muons decays, first for muons created at rest and then for high-velocity muons created in cosmic-ray showers. The second graph is found experimentally to be stretched out by a factor of about ten, which matches well with the prediction of relativity theory:

Since a muon takes many microseconds to pass through the atmosphere, the result is a marked increase in the number of muons that reach the surface.

k / Decay of muons created at rest with respect to the observer.

l / Decay of muons moving at a speed of 0.995c with respect to the observer.

Time dilation for objects larger than the atomic scale

Our world is (fortunately) not full of human-scale objects moving at significant speeds compared to the speed of light. For this reason, it took over 80 years after Einstein's theory was published before anyone could come up with a conclusive example of drastic time dilation that wasn't confined to cosmic rays or particle accelerators. Recently, however, astronomers have found definitive proof that entire stars undergo time dilation. The universe is expanding in the aftermath of the Big Bang, so in general everything in the universe is getting farther away from everything else. One need only find an astronomical process that takes a standard amount of time, and then observe how long it appears to take when it occurs in a part of the universe that is receding from us rapidly. A type of exploding star called a type Ia supernova fills the bill, and technology is now sufficiently advanced to allow them to be detected across vast distances. Figure m shows convincing evidence for time dilation in the brightening and dimming of two distant supernovae.

The twin paradox

A natural source of confusion in understanding the time-dilation effect is summed up in the so-called twin paradox, which is not really a paradox. Suppose there are two teenaged twins, and one stays at home on earth while the other goes on a round trip in a spaceship at relativistic speeds (i.e., speeds comparable to the speed of light, for which the effects predicted by the theory of relativity are important). When the traveling twin gets home, she has aged only a few years, while her sister is now old and gray. (Robert Heinlein even wrote a science fiction novel on this topic, although it is not one of his better stories.)

The "paradox" arises from an incorrect application of the principle of relativity to a description of the story from the traveling twin's point of view. From her point of view, the argument goes, her homebody sister is the one who travels backward on the receding earth, and then returns as the earth approaches the spaceship again, while in the frame of reference fixed to the spaceship, the astronaut twin is not moving at all. It would then seem that the twin on earth is the one whose biological clock should tick more slowly, not the one on the spaceship. The flaw in the reasoning is that the principle of relativity only applies to frames that are in motion at constant velocity relative to one another, i.e., inertial frames of reference. The astronaut twin's frame of reference, however, is noninertial, because her spaceship must accelerate when it leaves, decelerate when it reaches its destination, and then repeat the whole process again on the way home. Their experiences are not equivalent, because the astronaut twin feels accelerations and decelerations. A correct treatment requires some mathematical complication to deal with the changing velocity of the astronaut twin, but the result is indeed that it's the traveling twin who is younger when they are reunited.6

The twin "paradox" really isn't a paradox at all. It may even be a part of your ordinary life. The effect was first verified experimentally by synchronizing two atomic clocks in the same room, and then sending one for a round trip on a passenger jet. (They bought the clock its own ticket and put it in its own seat.) The clocks disagreed when the traveling one got back, and the discrepancy was exactly the amount predicted by relativity. The effects are strong enough to be important for making the global positioning system (GPS) work correctly. If you've ever taken a GPS receiver with you on a hiking trip, then you've used a device that has the twin "paradox" programmed into its calculations. Your handheld GPS box gets signals from a satellite, and the satellite is moving fast enough that its time dilation is an important effect. So far no astronauts have gone fast enough to make time dilation a dramatic effect in terms of the human lifetime. The effect on the Apollo astronauts, for instance, was only a fraction of a second, since their speeds were still fairly small compared to the speed of light. (As far as I know, none of the astronauts had twin siblings back on earth!)

6Readers frequently wonder why the effects of the decelerations don't cancel out the effects of the accelerations. There are a couple of subtle issues here. First, there's no clearcut way to decide whether the time distortion happens during the accelerations and decelerations, or during the long periods of constant-speed cruising in between. This is because simultaneity isn't well defined, so there's no well-defined answer if Earth-bound Emma asks, "Is my sister's time distorted right now?" During the long period when spacefaring Sarah is cruising away from Earth at constant speed, Emma may observe that her sister's voice on the radio sounds abnormally slow, and conclude that the time distortion is in progress. Sarah, however, says that she herself is normal, and that Emma is the one who sounds slow. Each twin explains the other's perceptions as being due to the increasing separation between them, which causes the radio signals to be delayed more and more. The other thing to understand is that, even if we do decide to attribute the time distortion to the periods of acceleration and deceleration, we should expect the time-distorting effects of accelerations and decelerations to reinforce, not cancel. This is because there is no clear distinction between acceleration and deceleration that can be agreed upon by observers in different inertial frames. This is a fact about plain old Galilean relativity, not Einstein's relativity. Suppose a car is initially driving westward at 100 km/hr relative to the asphalt, then slams on the brakes and stops completely. In the asphalt's frame of reference, this is a deceleration. But from the point of view of an observer who is watching the earth rotate to the east, the asphalt may be moving eastward at a speed of 1000 km/hr. This observer sees the brakes cause an acceleration, from 900 km/hr to 1000 km/hr: the asphalt has pulled the car forward, forcing car to match its velocity.

An example of length contraction

n / Colliding nuclei show relativistic length contraction.

Figure n shows an artist's rendering of the length contraction for the collision of two gold nuclei at relativistic speeds in the RHIC accelerator in Long Island, New York, which went on line in 2000. The gold nuclei would appear nearly spherical (or just slightly lengthened like an American football) in frames moving along with them, but in the laboratory's frame, they both appear drastically foreshortened as they approach the point of collision. The later pictures show the nuclei merging to form a hot soup, in which experimenters hope to observe a new form of matter.

Discussion Questions

A A person in a spaceship moving at 99.99999999% of the speed of light relative to Earth shines a flashlight forward through dusty air, so the beam is visible. What does she see? What would it look like to an observer on Earth?

A question that students often struggle with is whether time and space can really be distorted, or whether it just seems that way. Compare with optical illusions or magic tricks. How could you verify, for instance, that the lines in the figure are actually parallel? Are relativistic effects the same or not?

C On a spaceship moving at relativistic speeds, would a lecture seem even longer and more boring than normal?
D Mechanical clocks can be affected by motion. For example, it was a significant technological achievement to build a clock that could sail aboard a ship and still keep accurate time, allowing longitude to be determined. How is this similar to or different from relativistic time dilation?
C What would the shapes of the two nuclei in the RHIC experiment look like to a microscopic observer riding on the left-hand nucleus? To an observer riding on the right-hand one? Can they agree on what is happening? If not, why not - after all, shouldn't they see the same thing if they both compare the two nuclei side-by-side at the same instant in time?
D If you stick a piece of foam rubber out the window of your car while driving down the freeway, the wind may compress it a little. Does it make sense to interpret the relativistic length contraction as a type of strain that pushes an object's atoms together like this? How does this relate to discussion question E?

Last Update: 2010-11-11