Speed Limit

“Wait, Sy, there’s something funny about that Lorentz factor. I’m riding my satellite and you’re in your spaceship to Mars and we compare notes and get different times and lengths and masses and all so we have to use the Lorentz factor to correct numbers between us. Which velocity do we use, yours or mine?”

“Good question, Vinnie. We use the difference between our two frames. We can subtract either velocity from the other one and replace v with that number. Strictly speaking, we’d subtract velocity components perpendicular to the vector between us. If I were to try to land on your satellite I’d have to expend fuel and energy to change my frame’s velocity to yours. When we matched frames the velocity difference would be zero, the Lorentz factor would be 1.0 and I’d see your solar array as a perfect 10×10‑meter square. Our clocks would tick in sync, too.”

“OK, now there’s another thing. That Lorentz formula compares our subtracted speeds to lightspeed c. What do we subtract to get c?”

“Deep question. That’s one of Einstein’s big insights. Suppose from my Mars‑bound spaceship I send out one light pulse toward Mars and another one in the reverse direction, and you’re watching from your satellite. No matter how fast my ship is traveling, Einstein said that you’d see both pulses, forward and backward, traveling at the same speed, c.”

“Wait, shouldn’t that be that your speed gets added to one pulse and subtracted from the other one?”

“Ejected mass works that way, but light has no mass. It measures its speed relative to space itself. What you subtract from c is zero. Everywhere.”

“OK, that’s deep. <pause> But another ‘nother thing—”

“For a guy who doesn’t like equations, you’re really getting into this one.”

“Yeah, as I get up to speed it grows on me. HAW!”

“Nice one, you got me. What’s the ‘nother thing?”

“I remembered how velocity is speed and direction but we’ve been mixing them together. If my satellite’s headed east and your spaceship’s headed west, one of us is minus to the other, right? We’re gonna figure opposite v‑numbers. How’s that work out?”

“You’re right. Makes no difference to the Lorentz factor because the square of a negative difference is the same as the square of its positive twin. You bring up an important point, though — the factor applies to both of us. From my frame, your clock is running slow. From your frame, mine’s the slow one. Einstein’s logic says we’re both right.”

“So we both show the same wrong time, no problem.”

“Nope, you see my clock running slow relative to your clock. I see exactly the reverse. But it gets worse. How about getting your pizza before you order it?”

“Eddie’s good, he ain’t that good. How do you propose to make that happen?”

“Well, I don’t, but follow me here. <working numbers on Old Reliable> Suppose we’re both in spaceships. I’m loafing along at 0.75c relative to Eddie’s pizza place on Earth and your ship is doing 3c. Also, suppose that we can transmit messages and mass much faster than lightspeed.”

“Like those Star Trek transporters and subspace radios.”

“Right. OK, at noon on my personal clock you tell me you’ve ordered pizza so I get one, too. Eddie slaps both our pizzas into his transporter 10 minutes later. The math works out that according to my clock you get your pizza 8.9 minutes before you put in your order. You like that?”

“Gimme a sec … nah, I don’t think so. If I read that formula right with v1 being you and v2 being me, if you run that formula for what I’d see with my velocity on the bottom, that’s a square root of a minus which can’t be right.”

“Yup, the calculation gives an imaginary number, 4.4i minutes, whatever that means. So between us we have two results that are just nonsense — I see effect before cause and you see a ridiculous time. To avoid that sort of thing, Einstein set his speed limit for light, gravity and information.”

“I’m willing to keep under it if you are.”


~~ Rich Olcott

The Relativity Factor

“Sy, it’s nice that Einstein agreed with Rayleigh’s wave theory stuff but why’d you even drag him in? I thought the faster‑than‑light thing was settled.”

“Vinnie, faster‑than‑light wasn’t even an issue until Einstein came along. Science had known lightspeed was fast but not infinite since Rømer measured it in Newton’s day. ‘Pretty fast,’ they said, but Newtonian mechanics is perfectly happy with any speed you like. Then along came Einstein.”

“Speed cop, was he?”

“Funny, Vinnie. No, Einstein showed that the Universe enforces the lightspeed limit. It’s central to how the Universe works. Come to think of it, the crucial equation had been around for two decades, but it took Einstein to recognize its significance.”

“Ah, geez, equations again.”

“Just this one and it’s simple. It’s all about comparing v for velocity which is how fast something’s going, to c the speed of light. Nothing mystical about the arithmetic — if you’re going half the speed of light, the factor works out to 1.16. Ninety‑nine percent of c gives you 7.09. Tack on another 9 and you’re up to 22.37 and so on.”

“You got those numbers memorized?”

“Mm-hm, they come in handy sometimes.”

“Handy how? What earthly use is it? Nothing around here goes near that fast.”

“Do you like your GPS? It’d be useless if the Lorentz factor weren’t included in the calculations. The satellites that send us their sync signals have an orbit about 84 000 kilometers wide. They run that circle once a sidereal day, just shy of 86 400 seconds. That works out to 3 kilometers per second and a Lorentz factor of 1.000 005.”

“Yeah, so? That’s pretty close to 1.0.”

“It’s off by 5 parts per million. Five parts per million of Earth’s 25 000-mile circumference is an eighth of a mile. Would you be happy if your GPS directed you to somewhere a block away from your address?”

“Depends on why I’m going there, but I get your point. So where else does this factor come into play?”

“Practically anywhere that involves a precision measurement of length or duration. It’s at the core of Einstein’s Special Relativity work. He thought about observing a distant moving object. It’s carrying a clock and a ruler pointed along the direction of motion. The observer would see ticks of the clock get further apart by the Lorentz factor, that’s time dilation. Meanwhile, they’d see the ruler shrink by the factor’s inverse, that’s space compression.”

“What’s this ‘distant observer‘ business?”

“It’s less to do with distance than with inertial frames. If you’re riding one inertial frame with a GPS satellite, you and your clock stay nicely synchronized with the satellite’s signals. You’d measure its 1×1‑meter solar array as a perfect square. Suppose I’m riding a spaceship that’s coasting to Mars. I measure everything relative to my own inertial frame which is different from yours. With my telescope I’d measure your satellite’s solar array as a rectangle, not a square. The side perpendicular to the satellite’s orbit would register the expected 1 meter high, but the side pointing along the orbit would be shorter, 1 meter divided by the Lorentz factor for our velocity difference. Also, our clocks would drift apart by that Lorentz factor.”

“Wait, Sy, there’s something funny about that equation.”

“Oh? What’s funny?”

“What if somebody’s speed gets to c? That’d make the bottom part zero. They didn’t let us do that in school.”

“And they shouldn’t — the answer is infinity. Einstein spotted the same issue but to him it was a feature, not a bug. Take mass, for instance. When they meet Einstein’s famous E=mc² equation most people think of the nuclear energy coming from a stationary lump of uranium. Newton’s F=ma defined mass in terms of a body’s inertia — the greater the mass, the more force needed to achieve a certain amount of acceleration. Einstein recognized that his equation’s ‘E‘ should include energy of motion, the ½mv² kind. He had to adjust ‘m‘ to keep F=ma working properly. The adjustment was to replace inertial mass with ‘relativistic mass,’ calculated as inertial mass times the Lorentz factor. It’d take infinite force to accelerate any relativistic mass up to c. That’s why lightspeed’s the speed limit.”

~~ Rich Olcott