Relativity and the Problem of Space (Part 10)



NOTE: Einstein’s statements are in italics. My understanding follows in bold.

“The aether-theory brought with it the question: How does the aether behave from the mechanical point of view with respect to ponderable bodies? Does it take part in the motions of the bodies, or do its parts remain at rest relatively to each other? Many ingenious experiments were undertaken to decide this question. The following important facts should be mentioned in this connection: the “aberration” of the fixed stars in consequence of the annual motion of the earth, and the “Doppler effect”, i.e. the influence of the relative motion of the fixed stars on the frequency of the light reaching us from them, for known frequencies of emission. The results of all these facts and experiments, except for one, the Michelson-Morley experiment, were explained by H. A. Lorentz on the assumption that the aether does not take part in the motions of ponderable bodies, and that the parts of the aether have no relative motions at all with respect to each other. Thus the aether appeared, as it were, as the embodiment of a space absolutely at rest. But the investigation of Lorentz accomplished still more. It explained all the electromagnetic and optical processes within ponderable bodies known at that time, on the assumption that the influence of ponderable matter on the electric field – and conversely – is due solely to the fact that the constituent particles of matter carry electrical charges, which share the motion of the particles. Concerning the experiment of Michelson and Morley, H. A. Lorentz showed that the result obtained at least does not contradict the theory of an aether at rest.

“In spite of all these beautiful successes the state of the theory was not yet wholly satisfactory, and for the following reasons. Classical mechanics, of which it could not be doubted that it holds with a close degree of approximation, teaches the equivalence of all inertial systems or inertial “spaces” for the formulation of natural laws, i.e. the invariance of natural laws with respect to the transition from one inertial system to another. Electromagnetic and optical experiments taught the same thing with considerable accuracy. But the foundation of electromagnetic theory taught that a particular inertial system must be given preference, namely that of the luminiferous aether at rest. This view of the theoretical foundation was much too unsatisfactory. Was there no modification that, like classical mechanics, would uphold the equivalence of inertial systems (special principle of relativity)?

“The answer to this question is the special theory of relativity. This takes over from the theory of Maxwell-Lorentz the assumption of the constancy of the velocity of light in empty space. In order to bring this into harmony with the equivalence of inertial systems (special principle of relativity), the idea of the absolute character of simultaneity must be given up; in addition, the Lorentz transformations for the time and the space co-ordinates follow for the transition from one inertial system to another. The whole content of the special theory of relativity is included in the postulate: The laws of Nature are invariant with respect to the Lorentz transformations. The important thing of this requirement lies in the fact that it limits the possible natural laws in a definite manner.” ~ Albert Einstein


Electromagnetic field was at first thought to describe the states of some mysterious substance called aether. Experiments then showed aether to embody “a space absolutely at rest”. But, this idea contradicted the principle that natural laws work the same way in all inertial systems (special principle of relativity). The principle, however, was supported by Lorentz transformations for the time and the space co-ordinates.

This special principle of relativity thus required that speed of light must be constant in “empty space” and the idea of the absolute character of simultaneity must be given up.

This means that there is no “now” in an absolute sense.

Previous: Relativity and the Problem of Space (Part 9)
Next:  Relativity and the Problem of Space (Part 11)


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