Einstein 1920: Special and General Principle of Relativity

Reference: Einstein’s 1920 Book

This paper presents Part II, Chapter 1 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.

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Special and General Principle of Relativity

The basal principle, which was the pivot of all our previous considerations, was the special principle of relativity, i.e. the principle of the physical relativity of all uniform motion. Let us once more analyse its meaning carefully.

It was at all times clear that, from the point of view of the idea it conveys to us, every motion must only be considered as a relative motion. Returning to the illustration we have frequently used of the embankment and the railway carriage, we can express the fact of the motion here taking place in the following two forms, both of which are equally justifiable:

(a) The carriage is in motion relative to the embankment.
(b) The embankment is in motion relative to the carriage.

In (a) the embankment, in (b) the carriage, serves as the body of reference in our statement of the motion taking place. If it is simply a question of detecting or of describing the motion involved, it is in principle immaterial to what reference-body we refer the motion. As already mentioned, this is self-evident, but it must not be confused with the much more comprehensive statement called “the principle of relativity,” which we have taken as the basis of our investigations.

We consider the motion of the light to be absolute, and consider other motions relative to it. The theory of relativity does not take into account which of the two motions being considered is greater.

The principle we have made use of not only maintains that we may equally well choose the carriage or the embankment as our reference-body for the description of any event (for this, too, is self-evident). Our principle rather asserts what follows: If we formulate the general laws of nature as they are obtained from experience, by making use of

(a) the embankment as reference-body,
(b) the railway carriage as reference-body,

then these general laws of nature (e.g. the laws of mechanics or the law of the propagation of light in vacuo) have exactly the same form in both cases. This can also be expressed as follows: For the physical description of natural processes, neither of the reference-bodies K, K’ is unique (lit. “specially marked out”) as compared with the other. Unlike the first, this latter statement need not of necessity hold a priori; it is not contained in the conceptions of “motion” and “reference-body” and derivable from them; only experience can decide as to its correctness or incorrectness.

The actual reference-body is the speed of light. Relative to it the speeds of other bodies in the material domain are being measured. This approximates the absolute motion of the bodies in the material domain. But this is not recognized by the special theory of relativity.

Up to the present, however, we have by no means maintained the equivalence of all bodies of reference K in connection with the formulation of natural laws. Our course was more on the following lines. In the first place, we started out from the assumption that there exists a reference-body K, whose condition of motion is such that the Galileian law holds with respect to it: A particle left to itself and sufficiently far removed from all other particles moves uniformly in a straight line. With reference to K (Galileian reference-body) the laws of nature were to be as simple as possible. But in addition to K, all bodies of reference K’ should be given preference in this sense, and they should be exactly equivalent to K for the formulation of natural laws, provided that they are in a state of uniform rectilinear and non-rotary motion with respect to K; all these bodies of reference are to be regarded as Galileian reference-bodies. The validity of the principle of relativity was assumed only for these reference-bodies, but not for others (e.g. those possessing motion of a different kind). In this sense we speak of the special principle of relativity, or special theory of relativity.

In contrast to this we wish to understand by the “general principle of relativity” the following statement: All bodies of reference K, K’, etc., are equivalent for the description of natural phenomena (formulation of the general laws of nature), whatever may be their state of motion. But before proceeding farther, it ought to be pointed out that this formulation must be replaced later by a more abstract one, for reasons which will become evident at a later stage.

The special theory relativity considers only uniform motion and no acceleration. A more general case shall consider acceleration also.

Since the introduction of the special principle of relativity has been justified, every intellect which strives after generalisation must feel the temptation to venture the step towards the general principle of relativity. But a simple and apparently quite reliable consideration seems to suggest that, for the present at any rate, there is little hope of success in such an attempt. Let us imagine ourselves transferred to our old friend the railway carriage, which is travelling at a uniform rate. As long as it is moving uniformly, the occupant of the carriage is not sensible of its motion, and it is for this reason that he can unreluctantly interpret the facts of the case as indicating that the carriage is at rest, but the embankment in motion. Moreover, according to the special principle of relativity, this interpretation is quite justified also from a physical point of view.

If the motion of the carriage is now changed into a non-uniform motion, as for instance by a powerful application of the brakes, then the occupant of the carriage experiences a correspondingly powerful jerk forwards. The retarded motion is manifested in the mechanical behaviour of bodies relative to the person in the railway carriage. The mechanical behaviour is different from that of the case previously considered, and for this reason it would appear to be impossible that the same mechanical laws hold relatively to the non-uniformly moving carriage, as hold with reference to the carriage when at rest or in uniform motion. At all events it is clear that the Galileian law does not hold with respect to the non-uniformly moving carriage. Because of this, we feel compelled at the present juncture to grant a kind of absolute physical reality to non-uniform motion, in opposition to the general principle of relativity. But in what follows we shall soon see that this conclusion cannot be maintained.

With uniform motion we cannot differentiate which of the two reference body is at rest and which is moving. But with acceleration we can differentiate which reference-body I accelerating.

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FINAL COMMENTS

The special theory of relativity considers uniform motions only. It cannot differentiate which of the two reference bodies has greater motion.

A general theory of relativity shall consider accelerations also. It can then differentiate which of the two reference bodies is accelerating.

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