Einstein 1920: Relativity of Simultaneity

Reference: Einstein’s 1920 Book

This paper presents Part 1, Chapter 9 from the book RELATIVITY: THE SPECIAL AND GENERAL THEORY by A. EINSTEIN. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Henry Holt and Company, New York (1920).

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

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


The Relativity of Simultaneity

Up to now our considerations have been referred to a particular body of reference, which we have styled a “railway embankment.” We suppose a very long train travelling along the rails with the constant velocity v and in the direction indicated in Fig. 1. People travelling in this train will with advantage use the train as a rigid reference-body (co-ordinate system); they regard all events in reference to the train. Then every event which takes place along the line also takes place at a particular point of the train. Also the definition of simultaneity can be given relative to the train in exactly the same way as with respect to the embankment. As a natural consequence, however, the following question arises:

Are two events (e.g. the two strokes of lightning A and B) which are simultaneous with reference to the railway embankment also simultaneous relatively to the train? We shall show directly that the answer must be in the negative.

When we say that the lightning strokes A and B are simultaneous with respect to the embankment, we mean: the rays of light emitted at the places A and B, where the lightning occurs, meet each other at the mid-point M of the length A —> B of the embankment. But the events A and B also correspond to positions A and B on the train. Let M’ be the mid-point of the distance A —> B on the travelling train. Just when the flashes1 of lightning occur, this point M’ naturally coincides with the point M, but it moves towards the right in the diagram with the velocity v of the train. If an observer sitting in the position M’ in the train did not possess this velocity, then he would remain permanently at M, and the light rays emitted by the flashes of lightning A and B would reach him simultaneously, i.e. they would meet just where he is situated. Now in reality (considered with reference to the railway embankment) he is hastening towards the beam of light coming from B, whilst he is riding on ahead of the beam of light coming from A. Hence the observer will see the beam of light emitted from B earlier than he will see that emitted from A. Observers who take the railway train as their reference-body must therefore come to the conclusion that the lightning flash B took place earlier than the lightning flash A. We thus arrive at the important result:

1 As judged from the embankment.

Events which are simultaneous with reference to the embankment are not simultaneous with respect to the train, and vice versa (relativity of simultaneity). Every reference-body (co-ordinate system) has its own particular time; unless we are told the reference-body to which the statement of time refers, there is no meaning in a statement of the time of an event.

The perception of simultaneity changes with motion in Einstein’s thought experiment because the speed of communication is finite. But this perception will still change if the speed of communication were infinite.

Now before the advent of the theory of relativity it had always tacitly been assumed in physics that the statement of time had an absolute significance, i.e. that it is independent of the state of motion of the body of reference. But we have just seen that this assumption is incompatible with the most natural definition of simultaneity; if we discard this assumption, then the conflict between the law of the propagation of light in vacuo and the principle of relativity (developed in Section 7) disappears.

Motion is change in position, or status quo. It implies how something is changing with respect to itself. Such change is represented by acceleration. When there is no acceleration or deceleration, there is no real motion.

In the absence of acceleration, there is constant velocity. But this constant velocity is not the same for all coordinate systems. The constant velocity occurs when acceleration is balanced by inertia. Therefore, the magnitude of constant velocity is determined by inertia. When inertia is infinite the velocity is zero. When inertia is zero, the velocity is infinite. Velocity decreases as inertia increases.

We get a sense of time when there is change. Less inertia means faster change and greater tempo of time. More inertia means slower change, and reduced tempo of time. In the material universe, matter is enduring. This provides a steady tempo against which passage of time may be measured.

We were led to that conflict by the considerations of Section 6, which are now no longer tenable. In that section we concluded that the man in the carriage, who traverses the distance w per second relative to the carriage, traverses the same distance also with respect to the embankment in each second of time. But, according to the foregoing considerations, the time required by a particular occurrence with respect to the carriage must not be considered equal to the duration of the same occurrence as judged from the embankment (as reference-body). Hence it cannot be contended that the man in walking travels the distance w relative to the railway line in a time which is equal to one second as judged from the embankment.

The sense of velocity comes from distance changing between two objects. The rate of change in this distance shall be determined by the motion or inertia of the two objects and the quantization of the radiation filling the distance.

Moreover, the considerations of Section 6 are based on yet a second assumption, which, in the light of a strict consideration, appears to be arbitrary, although it was always tacitly made even before the introduction of the theory of relativity.


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