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

What Time Is It on Mars?

I’m puffing a little after hiking up a dozen flights of stairs. That whole bank of Acme Building elevators is closed off while the repair crew tries to free up the one that trapped us. The crowd waiting for the other bank is forgetaboutit. I unlock my office door and there’s Vinnie, tinkering with the thermostat. “Geez, Sy, it’s almost as cold in here as it is out in the hall. Hey, ya think there’s anything to the rumor that building management is gonna rent out that elevator as office space? And how does time work on Mars?”

“Morning, Vinnie. You’re right, I don’t think so, and where’d that last question come from?”

“I been thinking about those ultra-accurate clocks and how they’d play into that relativity stuff we talked about with Ramona.” <short lull in the conversation as we both consider Ramona> “Suppose there’s one of those clocks in a satellite going around Earth. If I remember right, it’s going ZIP around the planet so its clock ought to run faster than my wristwatch, but it’s further out of Earth’s gravity well so its clock ought to run slower. Which would win?”

“You remembered right — you’ve got Special Relativity and General Relativity in a couple of nutshells, and yes, they sometimes work in opposite directions. You have to look at the numbers. Give me a sec to work up a few examples on Old Reliable… OK, let’s start with the speed part. That’s Special Relativity because they both start with ‘SP’.”


“I thought so.  OK, here’s a handful of locations and their associated straight-line speeds relative to some star far away. That last column shows a difference factor for a clock at each location compared to a far-away motionless clock in a zero gravitational field. Multiply the factor by 86,400 seconds per day to get the time difference per day. The fastest thing on the list is that spacecraft we’re sending to the Sun by way of some slingshot maneuvers around Venus to speed it up. The Special Relativity difference comes to less than two nanoseconds per day. That’s barely in the range we can detect. It’s way less for everyplace else. ”

“Hey, Mars is down at the bottom. Lemme think why… OK, slower rotation than Earth’s, AND smaller radius so you don’t move as far for the same degrees of spin, so the formula barely subtracts anything from 1.0, right?”

“Yup, the slower you go compared to lightspeed the smaller the time adjustment. The difference between unity and the ratio for a point on Mars’ surface is so small that Old Reliable suffered a floating-point underflow trying to calculate it. That’s hard to make it do. Bottom line, the SR effect doesn’t really kick in unless you’re going faster than practically everything larger than an atom.”

“So how about the gravity wells? I’ll bet the deeper the well, the more time gets stretched.”

“Good bet. The well gets deeper as the attracting mass increases. But your clock feels less of a squeeze if it’s further away. The net effect is controlled by the mass-to-distance ratio inside that square root. Worst case in this table is at the top. A clock embedded in the Sun’s photosphere loses 0.00212*(86400 sec/day)=183 seconds compared to a far-away motionless clock in free-fall. We here on Earth lose 912 milliseconds a day total, but the astronauts on the ISS lose about 3 milliseconds less than we do because they’re further away from Earth’s center.”

“Yeah, I read about those twin astronauts. The one flying on the ISS didn’t get older as fast as the one that stayed on Earth.”

“About a second’s-worth over a year. So, do you have your relativity and Mars-time answer?”

“Sorta. But what time is it up there right now?”

“Hey, Mars is a whole world and has different times at different places just like Earth does. Wherever you are on Mars, ‘noon’ is when the Sun is overhead. Mars spins about 3% slower than Earth does — noon-to-noon there is Earth’s 24 hours plus 37 minutes and change. Add in the net 340-millisecond relativistic daily drift away from Earth time. No way can you sync up Earth and Mars times.”

“Nothin’s simple, huh?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Gravity from Another Perspective

“OK, we’re looking at that robot next to the black hole and he looks smaller to us because of space compression down there.  I get that.  But when the robot looks back at us do we look bigger?”

We’re walking off a couple of Eddie’s large pizzas.  “Sorry, Mr Feder, it’s not that simple.  Multiple effects are in play but only two are magnifiers.”

“What isn’t?”

“Perspective for one.  That works the same in both directions — the image of an object shrinks in direct proportion to how far away it is.  Relativity has nothing to do with that principle.”

“That makes sense, but we’re talking black holes.  What does relativity do?”

“Several things, but it’s complicated.”

“Of course it is.”

“OK, you know the difference between General and Special Relativity?”

“Yeah, right, we learned that in kindergarten.  C’mon.”

“Well, the short story is that General Relativity effects depend on where you are and Special Relativity effects depend on how fast you’re going.  GR says that the scale of space is compressed near a massive object.  That’s the effect that makes our survey robot appear to shrink as it approaches a black hole.  GR leaves the scale of our space larger than the robot’s.  Robot looks back at us, factors out the effect of perspective, and reports that we appear to have grown.  But there’s the color thing, too.”

“Color thing?”

“Think about two photons, say 700-nanometer red light, emitted by some star on the other side of our black hole.  One photon slides past it.  We detect that one as red light.  The other photon hits our robot’s photosensor down in the gravity well.  What color does the robot see?”

“It’s not red, ’cause otherwise you wouldn’t’ve asked me the question.”


“Robot’s down there where space is compressed…  Does the lightwave get compressed, too?”

“Yup.  It’s called gravitational blue shift.  Like anything else, a photon heading towards a massive object loses gravitational potential energy.  Rocks and such make up for that loss by speeding up and gaining kinetic energy.  Light’s already at the speed limit so to keep the accounts balanced the photon’s own energy increases — its wavelength gets shorter and the color shifts blue-ward.  Depending on where the robot is, that once-red photon could look green or blue or even X-ray-colored.”

“So the robot sees us bigger and blue-ish like.”Robots and perspective and relativity 2“But GR’s not the only player.  Special Relativity’s in there, too.”

“Maybe our robot’s standing still.”

“Can’t, once it gets close enough.  Inside about 1½ diameters there’s no stable orbit around the black hole, and of course inside the event horizon anything not disintegrated will be irresistibly drawn inward at ever-increasing velocity.  Sooner or later, our poor robot is going to be moving at near lightspeed.”

“Which is when Special Relativity gets into the game?”

“Mm-hm.  Suppose we’ve sent in a whole parade of robots and somehow they maintain position in an arc so that they’re all in view of the lead robot.  The leader, we’ll call it RP-73, is deepest in the gravity well and falling just shy of lightspeed.  Gravity’s weaker further out — trailing followers fall slower.  When RP-73 looks back, what will it see?”

“Leaving aside the perspective and GR effects?  I dunno, you tell me.”

“Well, we’ve got another flavor of red-shift/blue-shift.  Speedy RP-73 records a stretched-out version of lightwaves coming from its slower-falling followers, so so it sees their colors shifted towards the red, just the opposite of the GR effect.  Then there’s dimming — the robots in the back are sending out n photons per second but because of the speed difference, their arrival rate at RP-73 is lower.  But the most interesting effect is relativistic aberration.”

“OK, I’ll bite.”

“Start off by having RP-73 look forward.  Going super-fast, it intercepts more oncoming photons than it would standing still.”

“Bet they look blue to it, and really bright.”

“Right on.  In fact, its whole field of view contracts towards its line of flight.  The angular distortion continues all the way around.  Rearward objects appear to swell.”

“So yeah, we’d look bigger.”

“And redder.  If RP-73 is falling fast enough.”

~~ Rich Olcott

  • Thanks to Timothy Heyer for the question that inspired this post.

Questions, Meta-questions and Answers

<We rejoin Sy and Vinnie in the library stacks…> “Are you boys discussing me?”

<unison> “Oh, hi, Ramona.”

“Actually no, Ramona, we were discussing relativistic time dilation.”

“I know that, Sy, I’ve been reading your posts. Now I’ve got a question.”

“But how…?  Never mind.  Guess I’d better watch my writing.  What can I do for you?”

“You and Vinnie have been going on about kinetic time dilation and gravitational time dilation like they’re two separate things, right?”

“That’s how we’ve treated them, right, but the textbooks do the same.  The velocity-dependent time-stretch equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(v²/c²)], comes out of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. The gravity-dependent equation, tslow/tfast = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)], came from his General Theory of Relativity.”

“But there’s no rule that says an object can’t be moving rapidly while it’s in a gravitational field, is there?  That Endurance spacecraft orbiting the black hole in the Interstellar movie certainly seemed to be in that situation.”

“No question, Ramona.  General Relativity’s just more, er, general.”

“Fine, but shouldn’t they work together?”

That got Vinnie started.  “Yeah, Sy, I started this with LIGO and gravity but you and those space shuttles got me into this speed thing.  How do you bridge ’em?”

“Not easily.  Einstein set the rules of the game when he wrote down his fundamental equations.  Physicists and mathematicians have been trying to solve them ever since.  Schwarzchild found the first solution within a year after the equations hit the streets, but he did the simplest possible system — a non-rotating spherical object with no electrical charge and alone in the Universe.  It took another half-century before Kerr and friends figured out how to handle rotating spheres with an electric charge, but even those objects are assumed to be isolated from all other masses.  Mm … how do you figure velocity, Vinnie?”

“Distance divided by time, easy.”

“Not quite that easy.  The equations say that if you’re close to a massive object, space gets compressed, time gets stretched, and the time and space dimensions get scrambled.  Literally.  Time near a Schwarzchild object points inward as you approach the sphere’s center, and don’t ask me how to visualize that.  A Kerr object has a belt around its equator where time runs backwards.  Craziness.”

“Well, how about if I’m not that close?”

“That’s easier to answer, Ramona.  Suppose the three of us are each flying at safe distances from some heavy object with mass M.  I’m farthest away so I’m holding the fastest clock.  We’ll compare Vinnie’s and your clocks to mine.  OK?”3-clocks

“Sure, why not?”

“Fine.  Now, Vinnie, you’re closer in, resting on the direct line between me and the object.  You’re at distance r from it.  How fast does your clock run?”

“Uhhh…  We’re both on that same radial line so we’re in the same inertial frame, no kinetic effect.  I suppose you see it ticking slower because of the gravitational effect.”

“M-hm, and my clock ticks how often between ticks of yours?”

“You want the equation, huh?  All right, it’s tvinnie/tsy = √[1-(2G·M/r·c²)].”

“You’re reading my mind with those subscripts.  Now, Ramona, you’re at that same distance from the object but you’re in orbit around it.  Measured against Vinnie’s position you’ve got velocity v.  How fast is his clock ticking compared to yours?”

“Mmm…  We’re at the same level in the gravity field, so the gravitational thing makes no difference.  So … tramona/tvinnie = √[1-(v²/c²)].  Aaand, he’d see my clock running slow by the same amount. That’s weird.”

“Weird but true.  Last step — Ramona, you’re deeper in the gravitational field and you’re speeding away from me, so tramona/tsy=(tramona/tvinnie)*(tvinnie/tsy)=√[1-(2G·M/r·c²)]*√[1-(v²/c²)] covers both.”

“OK, that’s settled.  Back to Vinnie’s original question.  LIGOs are set in concrete, their velocities are zero so LIGO signals are all about gravity, right?”


Ramona links arms with him.  “Let’s go dancing.”  Then she gives me the eye.  “Sugarlumps, Sy?  Really?”

On the 12th floor of the Acme Building, high above the city, one man still tries to answer the Universe’s persistent questions — Sy Moire, Physics Eye.

~~ Rich Olcott