Eddington 1927: Practical Applications

albert einstein
This undated file photo shows famed physicist Albert Einstein.

Reference: The Nature of the Physical World

This paper presents Chapter III (section 7 and Summary) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Practical Applications

In these lectures I am concerned more with the ideas of the new theories than with their practical importance for the advancement of science. But the drawback of dwelling solely on the underlying conceptions is that it is likely to give the impression that the new physics is very much “up in the air”. That is by no means true, and the relativity theory is used in a businesslike way in the practical problems to which it applies. I can only consider here quite elementary problems which scarcely do justice to the power of the new theory in advanced scientific research. Two examples must suffice.

(1) It has often been suggested that the stars will be retarded by the back-pressure of their own radiation. The idea is that since the star is moving forward the emitted radiation is rather heaped up in front of it and thinned out behind. Since radiation exerts pressure the pressure will be stronger on the front surface than on the rear, Therefore there is a force retarding the star tending to bring it gradually to rest. The effect might be of great importance in the study of stellar motions; it would mean that on the average old stars must have lower speeds than young stars—a conclusion which, as it happens, is contrary to observation.

But according to the theory of relativity “coming to rest” has no meaning. A decrease of velocity relative to one frame is an increase relative to another frame. There is no absolute velocity and no absolute rest for the star to come to. The suggestion may therefore be at once dismissed as fallacious.

The theory of Relativity denies absolute velocity. But absolute velocity does exist. The measure of absolute velocity is the velocity of the non-accelerating particle referenced from the zero velocity of infinite inertia.

Whether a star is old or new, its absolute velocity depends on its inertia. Radiation is being emitted by the star equally in all directions, and its net effect shall be zero.

(2) The β particles shot out by radioactive substances are electrons travelling at speeds not much below the speed of light. Experiment shows that the mass of one of these high-speed electrons is considerably greater than the mass of an electron at rest. The theory of relativity predicts this increase and provides the formula for the dependence of mass on velocity. The increase arises solely from the fact that mass is a relative quantity depending by definition on the relative quantities length and time.

Mass is defined for material particles in Newtonian mechanics. The smallest material particle is an atom. Particles observed as constituents of atoms are field-particles that are highly quantized. Electron is a field-particle. It has charge instead of mass. Its “mass” is calculated from mass-energy (charge) equivalence. But this is not the same as structured mass of a material-particle.

The speed of an electron increases only with a decrease in its quantization. It is inconsistent to say that the mass of electron Increases with increase in speed. This inconsistency needs to be investigated.

Let us look at a β particle from its own point of view. It is an ordinary electron in no wise different from any other. But it is travelling with unusually high speed? “No”, says the electron, “That is your point of view. I contemplate with amazement your extraordinary speed of 100,000 miles a second with which you are shooting past me. I wonder what it feels like to move so quickly. However, it is no business of mine.” So the β particle, smugly thinking itself at rest, pays no attention to our goings on, and arranges itself with the usual mass, radius and charge. It has just the standard mass of an electron, 9×10-28 grams. But mass and radius are relative quantities, and in this case the frame to which they are referred is evidently the frame appropriate to an electron engaged in self-contemplation, viz. the frame in which it is at rest But when we talk about mass we refer it to the frame in which we are at rest. By the geometry of the four-dimensional world we can calculate the formulae for the change of reckoning of mass in two different frames, which is consequential on the change of reckoning of length and time; we find in fact that the mass is increased in the same ratio as the length is diminished (FitzGerald factor). The increase of mass that we observe arises from the change of reckoning between the electron’s own frame and our frame.

All electrons are alike from their own point of view. The apparent differences arise in fitting them into our own frame of reference which is irrelevant to their structure. Our reckoning of their mass is higher than their own reckoning, and increases with the difference between our respective frames, i.e. with the relative velocity between us.

Science concerns itself with absolute values obtained from objective viewpoint. The theory of relativity provides relative values that are highly variable as they depend on subjective viewpoints. The mass of the electron is not the mass of Newtonian mechanics. The true mass is not increased with increase in absolute velocity.

We do not bring forward these results to demonstrate or confirm the truth of the theory, but to show the use of the theory. They can both be deduced from the classical electromagnetic theory of Maxwell coupled (in the second problem) with certain plausible assumptions as to the conditions holding at the surface of an electron. But to realise the advantage of the new theory we must consider not what could have been but what was deduced from the classical theory. The historical fact is that the conclusions of the classical theory as to the first problem were wrong; an important compensating factor escaped notice. Its conclusions as to the second problem were (after some false starts) entirely correct numerically. But since the result was deduced from the electromagnetic equations of the electron it was thought that it depended on the fact that an electron is an electrical structure; and the agreement with observation was believed to confirm the hypothesis that an electron is pure electricity and nothing else. Our treatment above makes no reference to any electrical properties of the electron, the phenomenon having been found to arise solely from the relativity of mass. Hence, although there may be other good reasons for believing that an electron consists solely of negative electricity, the increase of mass with velocity is no evidence one way or the other.



In this chapter the idea of a multiplicity of frames of space has been extended to a multiplicity of frames of space and time. The system of location in space, called a frame of space, is only a part of a fuller system of location of events in space and time. Nature provides no indication that one of these frames is to be preferred to the others. The particular frame in which we are relatively at rest has a symmetry with respect to us which other frames do not possess, and for this reason we have drifted into the common assumption that it is the only reasonable and proper frame; but this egocentric outlook should now be abandoned, and all frames treated as on the same footing. By considering time and space together we have been able to understand how the multiplicity of frames arises. They correspond to different directions of section of the four-dimensional world of events, the sections being the “world-wide instants”. Simultaneity (Now) is seen to be relative. The denial of absolute simultaneity is intimately connected with the denial of absolute velocity; knowledge of absolute velocity would enable us to assert that certain events in the past or future occur Here but not Now; knowledge of absolute simultaneity would tell us that certain events occur Now but not Here. Removing these artificial sections, we have had a glimpse of the absolute world-structure with its grain diverging and interlacing after the plan of the hour-glass figures. By reference to this structure we discern an absolute distinction between space-like and time-like separation of events—a distinction which justifies and explains our instinctive feeling that space and time are fundamentally different. Many of the important applications of the new conceptions to the practical problems of physics are too technical to be considered in this book; one of the simpler applications is to determine the changes of the physical properties of objects due to rapid motion. Since the motion can equally well be described as a motion of ourselves relative to the object or of the object relative to ourselves, it cannot influence the absolute behaviour of the object. The apparent changes in the length, mass, electric and magnetic fields, period of vibration, etc., are merely a change of reckoning introduced in passing from the frame in which the object is at rest to the frame in which the observer is at rest. Formulae for calculating the change of reckoning of any of these quantities are easily deduced now that the geometrical relation of the frames has been ascertained.

The multiplicity of frame of space and time are actually described better as the levels of quantization. These levels are quite distinct for field-particles, but this distinctness is lost for material-particles. The quantization level for material-substance appears to have a near constant value in terms of inertia, which makes Newtonian mechanics work for the most part.

The frame of space and time that relates to infinite inertia, works as the frame of absolute rest. The motion of each frame is balanced by its inertia. Therefore, all frames are on equal footing in the sense that they are at rest relative to their inertia, and have no acceleration. Thus, these frames have absolute velocities from the reference of the absolute rest of infinite inertia. As the inertia of a frame approaches zero, its absolute velocity reaches an infinite value. The speed of light is close to being infinite because its inertia (quantization) is close to zero.

It appears here that the true reasons for the success of the theory of relativity, and its limitation, are not fully understood.


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