Thinking in Spacetime

The Open Mic session in Al’s coffee shop is still going string. The crowd’s still muttering after Jeremy stuck a pin in Big Mike’s “coincidence” balloon when Jim steps up. Jim’s an Astrophysics post‑doc now so we quiet down expectantly. “Nice try, Mike. Here’s another mind expander to play with. <stepping over to the whiteboard> Folks, I give you … a hypotenuse. ‘That’s just a line,’ you say. Ah, yes, but it’s part of some right triangles like … these. Say three different observers are surveying the line from different locations. Alice finds her distance to point A is 300 meters and her distance to point B is 400. Applying Pythagoras’ Theorem, she figures the A–B distance as 500 meters. We good so far?”

A couple of Jeremy’s groupies look doubtful. Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major shyly raises a hand. “The formula they taught us is a2+b2=c2. And aren’t the x and y supposed to go horizontal and vertical?”

“Whoa, nice questions and important points. In a minute I’m going to use c for the speed of light. It’s confusing to use the same letter for two different purposes. Also, we have to pay them extra for double duty. Anyhow, I’m using d for distance here instead of c, OK? To your next point — Alice, Bob and Carl each have their own horizontal and vertical orientations, but the A–B line doesn’t care who’s looking at it. One of our fundamental principles is that the laws of Physics don’t depend on the observer’s frame of reference. In this situation that means that all three observers should measure the same length. The Pythagorean formula works for all of them, so long as we’re working on a flat plane and no-one’s doing relativistic stuff, OK?”

Tentative nods from the audience.

“Right, so much for flat pictures. Let’s up our game by a dimension. Here’s that same A–B line but it’s in a 3D box. <Maybe‑an‑Art‑Major snorts at Jim’s amateur attempt at perspective.> Fortunately, the Pythagoras formula extends quite nicely to three dimensions. It was fun figuring out why.”

Jeremy yells out. “What about time? Time’s a dimension.”

“For sure, but time’s not a length. You can’t add measurements unless they all have the same units.”

“You could fix that by multiplying time by c. Kilometers per second, times seconds, is a length.” His groupies go “Oooo.”

“Thanks for the bridge to spacetime where we have four coordinates — x, y, z and ct. That makes a big difference because now A and B each have both a where and a when — traveling between them is traveling in space and time. Computationally there’s two paths to follow from here. One is to stick with Pythagoras. Think of a 4D hypercube with our A–B line running between opposite vertices. We’re used to calculating area as x×y and volume as x×y×z so no surprise, the hypercube’s hypervolume is x×y×z×(ct). The square of the A–B line’s length would be b2=(ct)2+d2. Pythagoras would be happy with all of that but Einstein wasn’t. That’s where Alice and Bob and Carl come in again.”

“What do they have to do with it?”

“Carl’s sitting steady here on good green Earth, red‑shifted Alice is flying away at high speed and blue‑shifted Bob is flashing toward us. Because of Lorentz contractions and dilations, they all measure different A–B lengths and durations. Each observer would report a different value for b2. That violates the invariance principle. We need a ruggedized metric able to stand up to that sort of punishment. Einstein’s math professor Hermann Minkowski came up with a good one. First, a little nomenclature. Minkowski was OK with using the word ‘point‘ for a location in xyz space but he used ‘event‘ when time was one of the coordinates.”

“Makes sense, I put events on my calendar.”

“Good strategy. Minkowski’s next step quantified the separation between two events by defining a new metric he called the ‘interval.’ Its formula is very similar to Pythagoras’ formula, with one small change: s2=(ct)2–d2. Alice, Bob and Carl see different distances but they all see the same interval.”

Minus? Where did that come from?”

~~ Rich Olcott

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