Eddington 1927: Relativity of Length

Length contraction

This paper presents Chapter VII (section 2) 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.


Relativity of Length

There is no such thing as absolute length; we can only express the length of one thing in terms of the length of something else.* And so when we speak of the length of the directed radius we mean its length compared with the standard metre scale. Moreover, to make this comparison, the two lengths must lie alongside. Comparison at a distance is as unthinkable as action at a distance; more so, because comparison is a less vague conception than action. We must either convey the standard metre to the site of the length we are measuring, or we must use some device which, we are satisfied, will give the same result as if we actually moved the metre rod.

* This relativity with respect to a standard unit is, of course, additional to and independent of the relativity with respect to the observer’s motion treated in chapter II.

There is no absolute unit of length. A unit of length can be as big or as small as desired. The length shall be a function of quantization. The quantization of  space is different from the quantization of matter. Currently, this difference in quantization is not taken into account for the distance between two material bodies.

Now if we transfer the metre rod to another point of space and time, does it necessarily remain a metre long? Yes, of course it does; so long as it is the standard of length it cannot be anything else but a metre. But does it really remain the metre that it was? I do not know what you mean by the question; there is nothing by reference to which we could expose delinquencies of the standard rod, nothing by reference to which we could conceive the nature of the supposed delinquencies. Still the standard rod was chosen with considerable care; its material was selected to fulfil certain conditions—to be affected as little as possible by casual influences such as temperature, strain or corrosion, in order that its extension might depend only on the most essential characteristics of its surroundings, present and past.** We cannot say that it was chosen to keep the same absolute length since there is no such thing known; but it was chosen so that it might not be prevented by casual influences from keeping the same relative length—relative to what? Relative to some length inalienably associated with the region in which it is placed. I can conceive of no other answer. An example of such a length inalienably associated with a region is the directed radius.

** In so far as these casual influences are not entirely eliminated by the selection of material and the precautions in using the rod, appropriate corrections must be applied. But the rod must not be corrected for essential characteristics of the space it is measuring. We correct the reading of a voltmeter for temperature, but it would be nonsensical to correct it for effects of the applied voltage. The distinction between casual and essential influences—those to be eliminated and those to be left in—depends on the intention of the measurements. The measuring rod is intended for surveying space, and the essential characteristic of space is “metric”. It would be absurd to correct the readings of our scale to the values they would have had if the space had some other metric. The region of the world to which the metric refers may also contain an electric field; this will be regarded as a casual characteristic since the measuring rod is not intended for surveying electric fields. I do not mean that from a broader standpoint the electric field is any less essential to the region than its peculiar metric. It would be hard to say in what sense it would remain the same region if any of its qualities were other than they actually are. This point does not trouble us here, because there are vast regions of the world practically empty of all characteristics except metric, and it is to these that the law of gravitation is applied both in theory and in practice. It has seemed, however, desirable to dwell on this distinction between essential and casual characteristics because there are some who, knowing that we cannot avoid in all circumstances corrections for casual influences, regard that as license to adopt any arbitrary system of corrections—a procedure which would merely have the effect of concealing what the measures can teach us about essential characteristics.

The long and short of it is that when the standard metre takes up a new position or direction it measures itself against the directed radius of the world in that region and direction, and takes up an extension which is a definite fraction of the directed radius. I do not see what else it could do. We picture the rod a little bewildered in its new surroundings wondering how large it ought to be—how much of the unfamiliar territory its boundaries ought to take in. It wants to do just what it did before. Recollections of the chunk of space that it formerly filled do not help, because there is nothing of the nature of a landmark. The one thing it can recognise is a directed length belonging to the region where it finds itself; so it makes itself the same fraction of this directed length as it did before.

The standard length adjusts itself to the quantization (substantialness) of space and time.

If the standard metre is always the same fraction of the directed radius, the directed radius is always the same number of metres. Accordingly the directed radius is made out to have the same length for all positions and directions. Hence we have the law of gravitation.

When we felt surprise at finding as a law of Nature that the directed radius of curvature was the same for all positions and directions, we did not realise that our unit of length had already made itself a constant fraction of the directed radius. The whole thing is a vicious circle. The law of gravitation is—a put-up job.

This explanation introduces no new hypothesis. In saying that a material system of standard specification always occupies a constant fraction of the directed radius of the region where it is, we are simply reiterating Einstein’s law of gravitation—stating it in the inverse form. Leaving aside for the moment the question whether this behaviour of the rod is to be expected or not, the law of gravitation assures us that that is the behaviour. To see the force of the explanation we must, however, realise the relativity of extension. Extension which is not relative to something in the surroundings has no meaning. Imagine yourself alone in the midst of nothingness, and then try to tell me how large you are. The definiteness of extension of the standard rod can only be a definiteness of its ratio to some other extension. But we are speaking now of the extension of a rod placed in empty space, so that every standard of reference has been removed except extensions belonging to and implied by the metric of the region. It follows that one such extension must appear from our measurements to be constant everywhere (homogeneous and isotropic) on account of its constant relation to what we have accepted as the unit of length.

The quantization is pretty much the same for all material systems.

We approached the problem from the point of view that the actual world with its ten vanishing coefficients of curvature (or its isotropic directed curvature) has a specialisation which requires explanation; we were then comparing it in our minds with a world suggested by the pure mathematician which has entirely arbitrary curvature. But the fact is that a world of arbitrary curvature is a sheer impossibility. If not the directed radius, then some other directed length derivable from the metric, is bound to be homogeneous and isotropic. In applying the ideas of the pure mathematician we overlooked the fact that he was imagining a world surveyed from outside with standards foreign to it whereas we have to do with a world surveyed from within with standards conformable to it.

The explanation of the law of gravitation thus lies in the fact that we are dealing with a world surveyed from within. From this broader standpoint the foregoing argument can be generalised so that it applies not only to a survey with metre rods but to a survey by optical methods, which in practice are generally substituted as equivalent. When we recollect that surveying apparatus can have no extension in itself but only in relation to the world, so that a survey of space is virtually a self-comparison of space, it is perhaps surprising that such a self-comparison should be able to show up any heterogeneity at all. It can in fact be proved that the metric of a two-dimensional or a three-dimensional world surveyed from within is necessarily uniform. With four or more dimensions heterogeneity becomes possible, but it is a heterogeneity limited by a law which imposes some measure of homogeneity.

I believe that this has a close bearing on the rather heterodox views of Dr. Whitehead on relativity. He breaks away from Einstein because he will not admit the non-uniformity of space-time involved in Einstein’s theory. “I deduce that our experience requires and exhibits a basis of uniformity, and that in the case of nature this basis exhibits itself as the uniformity of spatio-temporal relations. This conclusion entirely cuts away the casual heterogeneity of these relations which is the essential of Einstein’s later theory.”* But we now see that Einstein’s theory asserts a casual heterogeneity of only one set of ten coefficients and complete uniformity of the other ten. It therefore does not leave us without the basis of uniformity of which Whitehead in his own way perceived the necessity. Moreover, this uniformity is not the result of a law casually imposed on the world; it is inseparable from the conception of survey of the world from within—which is, I think, just the condition that Whitehead would demand. If the world of space-time had been of two or of three dimensions Whitehead would have been entirely right; but then there could have been no Einstein theory of gravitation for him to criticise. Space-time being four-dimensional, we must conclude that Whitehead discovered an important truth about uniformity but misapplied it.

*A. N. Whitehead, The Principle of Relativity, Preface.

The conclusion that the extension of an object in any direction in the four-dimensional world is determined by comparison with the radius of curvature in that direction has one curious consequence. So long as the direction in the four-dimensional world is space-like, no difficulty arises. But when we pass over to time-like directions (within the cone of absolute past or future) the directed radius is an imaginary length. Unless the object ignores the warning symbol √-1 it has no standard of reference for settling its time extension. It has no standard duration. An electron decides how large it ought to be by measuring itself against the radius of the world in its space-directions. It cannot decide how long it ought to exist because there is no real radius of the world in its time-direction. Therefore it just goes on existing indefinitely. This is not intended to be a rigorous proof of the immortality of the electron—subject always to the condition imposed throughout these arguments that no agency other than metric interferes with the extension. But it shows that the electron behaves in the simple way which we might at least hope to find.**

** On the other hand a quantum (see chapter IX) has a definite periodicity associated with it, so that it must be able to measure itself against a time-extension. Anyone who contemplates the mathematical equations of the new quantum theory will see abundant evidence of the battle with the intervening symbol √-1.


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