Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity changed our understanding of the Universe.
Published in 1905, special relativity explains the behaviour of objects travelling at very high speeds and leads to the counterintuitive conclusion that measurements of space and time are not the same for all observers.
Einstein also concluded that energy and mass are interchangeable, an idea he expressed with his famous equation E=mc2.
Image: Portrait of Albert Einstein, probably taken in 1947 (credit: US Library of Congress/SPL)
Einstein explains the behaviour of objects travelling very fast.
Dallas asks Professor Paul Davies about Einstein's theory of relativity.
What is Einstein's theory of relativity, and can time really be warped by speed and gravity? Dallas asks a man who knows - Professor Paul Davies.
Special relativity (SR, also known as the special theory of relativity or STR) is the physical theory of measurement in an inertial frame of reference proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein in the paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies".
Galileo Galilei had already postulated that all uniform motion is relative, and that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest (no privileged reference frames), a principle now called Galileo's principle of relativity. Einstein extended this principle so that it accounted for the constant speed of light, a phenomenon that had been recently observed in the Michelson-Morley experiment. He also postulated that it holds for all the laws of physics, including both the laws of mechanics and of electrodynamics, whatever they may be.
This theory has a wide range of consequences which have been experimentally verified, including counter-intuitive ones such as length contraction, time dilation and relativity of simultaneity. It has replaced the classical notion of invariant time interval for two events with the notion of invariant space-time interval. Combined with other laws of physics, the two postulates of special relativity predict the equivalence of mass and energy, as expressed in the mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2, where c is the speed of light in vacuum. The predictions of special relativity agree well with Newtonian mechanics in their common realm of applicability, specifically in experiments in which all velocities are small compared with the speed of light. Special relativity reveals that c is not just the velocity of a certain phenomenon—namely the propagation of electromagnetic radiation (light)—but rather a fundamental feature of the way space and time are unified as spacetime. One of the consequences of the theory is that it is impossible for any particle that has rest mass to be accelerated to the speed of light.
The theory was originally termed "special" because it applied the principle of relativity only to the special case of inertial reference frames, i.e. frames of reference in uniform relative motion with respect to each other. Einstein developed general relativity to apply the principle in the more general case, that is, to any frame so as to handle general coordinate transformations, and that theory includes the effects of gravity.
The term is currently used more generally to refer to any case in which gravitation is not significant. General relativity is the generalization of special relativity to include gravitation. In general relativity, gravity is described using noneuclidean geometry, so that gravitational effects are represented by curvature of spacetime; special relativity is restricted to flat spacetime. Just as the curvature of the earth's surface is not noticeable in everyday life, the curvature of spacetime can be neglected on small scales, so that locally, special relativity is a valid approximation to general relativity. The presence of gravity becomes undetectable in a sufficiently small, free-falling laboratory.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.