How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 1380

I am a mentor to a 7th grader who is doing a report on Einstein. How do I explain his theory in a way that will be relevant to her? — MG
The basis for Einstein's theory of relativity is the idea that everyone sees light moving at the same speed. In fact, the speed of light is so special that it doesn't really depend on light at all. Even if light didn't exist, the speed of light would still be a universal standard—the fastest possible speed for anything in our universe.

Once we recognize that the speed of light is special and that everyone sees light traveling at that speed, our views of space and time have to change. One of the classic "thought experiments" necessitating that change is the flashbulb in the boxcar experiment. Suppose that you are in a railroad boxcar with a flashbulb in its exact center. The flashbulb goes off and its light spreads outward rapidly in all directions. Since the bulb is in the center of the boxcar, its light naturally hits the front and back walls of the boxcar at the same instant and everything seems simple.

But your boxcar is actually hurtling forward on a track at an enormous speed and your friend is sitting in a station as the train rushes by. She looks into the boxcar through its window and sees the flashbulb go off. She watches light from the flashbulb spread out in all directions but it doesn't hit the front and back walls of the boxcar simultaneously. Because the boxcar is moving forward, the front wall of the boxcar is moving away from the approaching light while the back wall of the boxcar is moving toward that light. Remarkably, light from the flashbulb strikes the back wall of the boxcar first, as seen by your stationary friend.

Something is odd here: you see the light strike both walls simultaneously while your stationary friend sees light strike the back wall first. Who is right? The answer, strangely enough, is that you're both right. However, because you are moving at different velocities, the two of you perceive time and space somewhat differently. Because of these differences, you and your friend will not always agree about the distances between points in space or the intervals between moments in time. Most importantly, the two of you will not always agree about the distance or time separating two specific events and, in certain cases, may not even agree about which event happened first!

The remainder of the special theory of relativity builds on this groundwork, always treating the speed of light as a fundamental constant of nature. Einstein's famous formula, E=mc2, is an unavoidable consequence of this line of reasoning.


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