No announcement yet.

Acceleration and the Warping of Space and Time

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Acceleration and the Warping of Space and Time

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 3 - Of Warps and Ripples
    Acceleration and the Warping of Space and Time
    Einstein worked on the problem of understanding gravity with extreme, almost obsessive, intensity. About five years after his happy revelation in the Bern patent office, he wrote to the physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, "I am now working exclusively on the gravity problem. . . . [O]ne thing is certain—that never in my life have I tormented myself anything like this. . . . Compared to this problem the original [i.e., special] relativity theory is child's play." 3

    He appears to have made the next key breakthrough, a simple yet subtle consequence of applying special relativity to the link between gravity and accelerated motion, in 1912. To understand this step in Einstein's reasoning it is easiest to focus, as apparently he did, on a particular example of accelerated motion. 4 Recall that an object is accelerating if either the speed or the direction of its motion changes. For simplicity we will focus on accelerated motion in which only the direction of our object's motion changes while its speed stays fixed. Specifically, we consider motion in a circle such as what one experiences on the Tornado ride in an amusement park. In case you have never tested the stability of your constitution on this ride, you stand with your back against the inside of a circular Plexiglas structure that spins at a high speed. Like all accelerated motion, you can feel this motion—you feel your body being pulled radially away from the ride's center and you feel the circular wall of Plexiglas pressing on your back, keeping you moving in a circle. (In fact, although not relevant for the present discussion, the spinning motion "pins" your body to the Plexiglas with such a force that when the ledge on which you are standing drops away you do not slip downward.) If the ride is extremely smooth and you close your eyes, the pressure of the ride on your back—like the support of a bed—can almost make you feel that you are lying down. The "almost" comes from the fact that you still feel ordinary "vertical" gravity, so your brain cannot be fully fooled. But if you were to ride the Tornado in outer space, and if it were to spin at just the right rate, it would feel just like lying in a stationary bed on earth. Moreover, were you to "get up" and walk along the interior of the spinning Plexiglas, your feet would press against it just as they do against an earthbound floor. In fact, space stations are designed to spin in this manner to create an artificial feeling of gravity in outer space.

    Having used the accelerated motion of the spinning Tornado to imitate gravity, we can now follow Einstein and set out to see how space and time appear to someone on the ride. His reasoning, adapted to this situation, went as follows. We stationary observers can easily measure the circumference and the radius of the spinning ride. For instance, to measure the circumference we can carefully lay out a ruler—head to tail—alongside the ride's spinning girth; for its radius we can similarly use the head-to-tail method working our way from the central axle of the ride to its outer rim. As we anticipate from high-school geometry, we find that their ratio is two times the number pi—about 6.28—just as it is for any circle drawn on a flat sheet of paper. But what do things look like from the perspective of someone on the ride itself?

    To find out, we ask Slim and Jim, who are currently enjoying a spin on the Tornado, to take a few measurements for us. We toss one of our rulers to Slim, who sets out to measure the circumference of the ride, and another to Jim, who sets out to measure the radius. To get the clearest perspective, let's take a bird's-eye view of the ride, as in Figure 3.1. We have adorned this snapshot of the ride with an arrow that indicates the momentary direction of motion at each point. As Slim begins to measure the circumference, we immediately see from our bird's-eye perspective that he is going to get a different answer than we did. As he lays the ruler out along the circumference, we notice that the ruler's length is shortened. This is nothing but the Lorentz contraction discussed in Chapter 2, in which the length of an object appears shortened along the direction of its motion. A shorter ruler means that he will have to lay it out—head to tail—more times to traverse the whole circumference. Since he still considers the ruler to be one foot long (since there is no relative motion between Slim and his ruler, he perceives it as having its usual length of one foot), this means that Slim will measure a longer circumference than did we. (If this seems paradoxical, you might find endnote 5 helpful.)

    Figure 3.1 Slim's ruler is contracted, since it lies along the direction of the ride's motion. But Jim's ruler lies along a radial strut, perpendicular to the direction of the ride's motion, and therefore its length is not contracted.

    What about the radius? Well, Jim also uses the head-to-tail method to find the length of a radial strut, and from our bird's-eye view we see that he is going to find the same answer as we did. The reason is that the ruler is not pointing along the instantaneous direction of the motion of the ride (as it is when measuring the circumference). Instead, it is pointed at a ninety-degree angle to the motion, and therefore it is not contracted along its length. Jim will therefore find exactly the same radial length as we did.

    But now, when Slim and Jim calculate the ratio of the circumference of the ride to its radius they will get a number that is larger than our answer of two times pi, since the circumference is longer but the radius is the same. This is weird. How in the world can something in the shape of a circle violate the ancient Greek realization that for any circle this ratio is exactly two times pi?

    Here is Einstein's explanation. The ancient Greek result holds true for circles drawn on a flat surface. But just as the warped or curved mirrors in an amusement park fun-house distort the normal spatial relationships of your reflection, if a circle is drawn on a warped or curved surface, its usual spatial relationships will also be distorted: the ratio of its circumference to its radius will generally not be two times pi.

    For instance, Figure 3.2 compares three circles whose radii are identical. Notice, however, that their circumferences are not the same. The circumference of the circle in (b), drawn on the curved surface of a sphere, is less less than the circumference of the circle drawn on the flat surface in (a), even though they have the same radius. The curved nature of the sphere's surface causes the radial lines of the circle to converge toward each other slightly, resulting in a small decrease in the circle's circumference. The circumference of the circle in (c), again drawn on a curved surface—a saddle shape—is greater than that drawn on a flat surface; the curved nature of the saddle's surface causes the radial lines of the circle to splay outward from each other slightly, resulting in a small increase in the circle's circumference. These observations imply that the ratio of the circumference to the radius of the circle in (b) will be less than two times pi, while the same ratio in (c) will be greater than two times pi. But this deviation from two times pi, especially the larger value found in (c), is just what we found for the spinning Tornado ride. This led Einstein to propose an idea—the curving of space—as an explanation for the violation of "ordinary," Euclidean geometry. The flat geometry of the Greeks, taught to schoolchildren for thousands of years, simply does not apply to someone on the spinning ride. Rather, its curved space generalization as schematically drawn in part (c) of Figure 3.2 takes its place. 5

    Figure 3.2 A circle drawn on a sphere (b) has a shorter circumference than one drawn on a flat sheet of paper (a), while a circle drawn on the surface of a saddle (c) has a longer circumference, even though they all have the same radius.
    And so Einstein realized that the familiar geometrical spatial relationships codified by the Greeks, relationships that pertain to "flat" space figures like a circle on a flat table, do not hold from the perspective of an accelerated observer. Of course, we have discussed only one particular kind of accelerated motion, but Einstein showed that a similar result—the warping of space—holds in all instances of accelerated motion.

    In fact, accelerated motion not only results in a warping of space, it also results in an analogous warping of time. (Historically, Einstein first focused on the warping of time and subsequently realized the importance of the warping of space. 6 On one level, it should not be too surprising that time is also affected, since we have already seen in Chapter 2 that special relativity articulates a union between space and time. This merger was summarized by the poetic words of Minkowski, who during a lecture on special relativity in 1908 said, "Henceforward space on its own and time on its own will decline into mere shadows, and only a kind of union between the two will preserve its independence." 7 In more down-to-earth but similarly imprecise language, by knitting space and time together into the unified structure of spacetime, special relativity declares, "What's true for space is true for time." But this raises a question: Whereas we can picture warped space by its having a. curved shape, what do we really mean by warped time?

    To get a feel for the answer, let's once again impose upon Slim and Jim on the Tornado ride and ask them to carry out the following experiment. Slim will stand with his back against the ride, at the far end of one of the ride's radial struts, while Jim will slowly crawl toward him along the strut, starting from the ride's center. Every few feet, Jim will stop his crawling and the two brothers are to compare the readings on their watches. What will they find? From our stationary, bird's-eye perspective, we can again predict the answer: Their watches will not agree. We come to this conclusion because we realize that Slim and Jim are travelling at different speeds—on the Tornado ride, the farther out along a radial strut you are, the farther you must travel to complete one rotation, and therefore the faster you must go. But from special relativity, the faster you go, the slower your watch ticks, and hence we realize that Slim's watch will tick more slowly than Jim's. Furthermore, Slim and Jim will find that, as Jim gets closer to Slim, the ticking rate of Jim's watch will slow down, approaching that of Slim's. This reflects the fact that as Jim gets farther out along the strut, his circular speed increases toward that of Slim.

    We conclude that to observers on the spinning ride, such as Slim and Jim, the rate of passage of time depends upon their precise position—in this case, their distance from the center of the ride. This is an illustration of what we mean by warped time: Time is warped if its rate of passage differs from one location to another. And of particular importance to our present discussion, Jim will also notice something else as he crawls out along the strut. He will feel an increasingly strong outward pull because not only does speed increase, but his acceleration increases as well, the farther he is from the spinning ride's center. On the Tornado ride, then, we see that greater acceleration is tied up with slower clocks—that is, greater acceleration results in a more significant warping of time.

    These observations took Einstein to the final leap. Since he had already shown gravity and accelerated motion to be effectively indistinguishable, and since he now had shown that accelerated motion is associated with the warping of space and time, he made the following proposal for the innards of the "black box" of gravity—the mechanism by which gravity operates. Gravity, according to Einstein, is the warping of space and time. Let's see what this means.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe