Eddington 1927: The Man in the Lift


This paper presents Chapter VI (section 1) 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.


The Man in the Lift

You sometimes speak of gravity as essential and inherent to matter. Pray do not ascribe that notion to me; for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know, and therefore would take more time to consider of it. …
Gravity must be caused by some agent acting constantly according to certain laws; but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.
Newton, Letters to Bentley.

About 1915 Einstein made a further development of his theory of relativity extending it to non-uniform motion. The easiest way to approach this subject is by considering the Man in the Lift.

Suppose that this room is a lift. The support breaks and down we go with ever-increasing velocity, falling freely.

Let us pass the time by performing physical experiments. The lift is our laboratory and we shall start at the beginning and try to discover all the laws of Nature —that is to say, Nature as interpreted by the  Man in the Lift. To a considerable extent this will be a repetition of the history of scientific discovery already made in the laboratories on terra firma. But there is one notable difference.

I perform the experiment of dropping an apple held in the hand. The apple cannot fall any more than it was doing already. You remember that our lift and all things contained in it are falling freely. Consequently the apple remains poised ‘by my hand. There is one incident in the history of science which will not repeat itself to the men in the lift, viz. Newton and the apple tree. The magnificent conception that the agent which guides the stars in their courses is the same as that which in our common experience causes apples to drop, breaks down because it is our common experience in the lift that apples do not drop.

I think we have now sufficient evidence to prove that in all other respects the scientific laws determined in the lift will agree with those determined under more orthodox conditions. But for this one omission the men in the lift will derive all the laws of Nature with which wre are acquainted, and derive them in the same form that we have derived them. Only the force which causes apples to fall is not present in their scheme.

I am crediting our observers in the lift with the usual egocentric attitude, viz. the aspect of the world to me is its natural one. It does not strike them as odd to spend their lives falling in a lift; they think it much more odd to be perched on the earth’s surface. Therefore although they perhaps have calculated that to beings supported in this strange way apples would seem to have a perplexing habit of falling, they do not take our experience of the ways of apples any more seriously than we have hitherto taken theirs.

Are we to take their experience seriously? Or to put it another way—What is the comparative importance to be attached to a scheme of natural laws worked out by observers in the falling lift and one worked out by observers on terra ferma? Is one truer than the other? Is one superior to the other? Clearly the difference if any arises from the fact that the schemes are referred to different frames of space and time. Our frame is a frame in which the solid ground is at rest; similarly their frame is a frame in which their lift is at rest. We have had examples before of observers using different frames, but those frames differed by a uniform velocity. The velocity of the lift is ever-increasing—accelerated. Can we extend to accelerated frames our principle that Nature is indifferent to frames of space and time, so that no one frame is superior to any other? I think we can. The only doubt that arises is whether we should not regard the frame of the man in the lift as superior to, instead of being merely coequal with, our usual frame.

Special relativity considers frames of space that are moving at uniform velocity. General relativity considers frames of space that are accelerating.

When we stand on the ground the molecules of the ground support us by hammering on the soles of our boots with force equivalent to some ten stone weight. But for this we should sink through the interstices of the floor. We are being continuously and vigorously buffeted. Now this can scarcely be regarded as the ideal condition for a judicial contemplation of our natural surroundings, and it would not be surprising if our senses suffering from this treatment gave a jaundiced view of the world. Our bodies are to be regarded as scientific instruments used to survey the world. We should not willingly allow anyone to hammer on a galvanometer when it was being used for observation; and similarly it is preferable to avoid a hammering on one’s body when it is being used as a channel of scientific knowledge. We get rid of this hammering when we cease to be supported.

Let us then take a leap over a precipice so that we may contemplate Nature undisturbed. Or if that seems to you an odd way of convincing yourself that bodies do not fall, (So far as I can tell (without experimental trial) the man who jumped over a precipice would soon lose all conception of falling; he would only notice that the surrounding objects were impelled past him with ever-increasing speed.)  let us enter the runaway lift again. Here nothing need be supported; our bodies, our galvanometers, and all measuring apparatus are relieved of hammering and their indications can be received without misgiving. The space- and time-frame of the falling lift is the frame natural to observers who are unsupported; and the laws of Nature determined in these favourable circumstances should at least have not inferior status to those established by reference to other frames.

I perform another experiment. This time I take two apples and drop them at opposite ends of the lift. What will happen? Nothing much at first; the apples remain poised where they were let go. But let us step outside the lift for a moment to watch the experiment. The two apples are pulled by gravity towards the centre of the earth. As they approach the centre their paths converge and they will meet at the centre. Now step back into the lift again. To a first approximation the apples remain poised above the floor of the lift; but presently we notice that they are drifting towards one another, and they will meet at the moment when (according to an outside observer) the lift is passing through the centre of the earth. Even though apples (in the lift) do not tend to fall to the floor there is still a mystery about their behaviour; and the Newton of the lift may yet find that the agent which guides the stars in their courses is to be identified with the agent which plays these tricks with apples nearer home.

It comes to this. There are both relative and absolute features about gravitation. The feature that impresses us most is relative—relative to a frame that has no special importance apart from the fact that it is the one commonly used by us. This feature disappears altogether in the frame of the man in the lift and we ought to disregard it in any attempt to form an absolute picture of gravitation. But there always remains something absolute, of which we must try to devise an appropriate picture. For reasons which I shall presently explain we find that it can be pictured as a curvature of space and time.

To measure uniform velocity an external reference is needed because, relative to itself, the uniform velocity is always zero.

To measure acceleration no external reference is needed, because acceleration is measured relative to the body itself. 


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