The Theory of Relativity

The Theory of Relativity, proposed by the Jewish physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in the early part of the 20th century, is one of the most significant scientific advances of our time. The Theory of Relativity, or simply relativity, generally encompasses two theories of Albert Einstein: Special Relativity and General Relativity.

Special Relativity is a theory of the structure of spacetime. It was introduced in Einstein's 1905 paper «On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies». Special Relativity is based on two postulates which are contradictory in classical mechanics: The laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another (principle of relativity). The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or of the motion of the light.

Some of the consequences of Special Relativity are:

- Relativity of simultaneity: Two events, simultaneous for one observer, may not be simultaneous for another observer if the observers are in relative motion.

- Time dilation: Moving clocks are measured to tick more slowly than an observer's «stationary» clock.

- Length contraction: Objects are measured to be shortened in the direction that they are moving with respect to the observer.

- Mass–energy equivalence: E = mc2, energy and mass are equivalent and transmutable.

- Maximum speed is finite: No physical object, message or field line can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

General Relativity is the Theory of Gravitation developed by Einstein in the years 1907–1915. The development of General Relativity began with the equivalence principle, under which the states of accelerated motion and being at rest in a gravitational field (for example when standing on the surface of the Earth) are physically identical. The upshot of this is that free fall is inertial motion; an object in free fall is falling because that is how objects move when there is no force being exerted on them, instead of this being due to the force of gravity as is the case in classical mechanics. This is incompatible with classical mechanics and special relativity because in those theories inertially moving objects cannot accelerate with respect to each other, but objects in free fall do so. To resolve this difficulty Einstein first proposed that spacetime is curved. In 1915, he devised the Einstein field equations which relate the curvature of spacetime with the mass, energy, and momentum within it.

Some of the consequences of general relativity are:

- Clocks run more slowly in deeper gravitational wells. This is called gravitational time dilation.

- Orbits precess in a way unexpected in Newton's theory of gravity. (This has been observed in the orbit of Mercury and in binary pulsars).

- Rays of light bend in the presence of a gravitational field.

- Rotating masses «drag along» the spacetime around them; a phenomenon termed «frame-dragging».

- The Universe is expanding, and the far parts of it are moving away from us faster than the speed of light.


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