Theory of Relativity

What is Relativity?
Until the end of the 19th century it was believed that Newton’s three Laws of Motion and the associated ideas about the properties of space and time provided a basis on which the motion of matter could be completely understood. However, the formulation by Maxwell of a unified theory of electromagnetism disrupted this comfortable state of affairs – the theory was extraordinarily successful, yet at a fundamental level it seemed to be inconsistent with certain aspects of the Newtonian ideas of space and time. Ultimately, a radical modification of these latter concepts, and consequently of Newton’s equations themselves, was found to be necessary. It was Albert Einstein who, by combining the experimental results and physical arguments of others with his own unique insights, first formulated the new principles in terms of which space, time, matter and energy were to be understood. These principles, and their consequences constitute the Special Theory of Relativity. Later, Einstein was able to further develop this theory, leading to what is known as the General Theory of Relativity. Amongst other things, this latter theory is essentially a theory of gravitation. The General Theory will not be dealt with in this course. Relativity (both the Special and General) theories, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics are the three major theories on which modern physics is based. What is unique about these three theories, as distinct from say the theory of electromagnetism, is their generality. Embodied in these theories are general principles which all more specialized or more specific theories are required to satisfy. Consequently these theories lead to general conclusions which apply to all physical systems, and hence are of enormous power, as well as of fundamental significance. The role of relativity appears to be that of specifying the properties of space and time, the arena in which all physical processes take place. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that the word ‘relativity’ immediately conjures up thoughts about the work of Einstein. The idea that a principle of relativity applies to the properties of the physical world is very old: it certainly predates Newton and Galileo, but probably not as far back as Aristotle.


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