Erk's Relativity Pages: ae_prgrx.htm

Einstein Lecture:

The General Theory of Relativity (extract)

part of a lecture by Albert Einstein (1921)

(Princeton University, May)

ALL of the previous considerations have been based upon the assumption that all inertial systems are equivalent for the description of physical phenomena, but that they are preferred, for the formulation of the laws of nature, to spaces of reference in a different state of motion. We can think of no cause for this preference for definite states of motion to all others, according to our previous considerations, either in the perceptible bodies or in the concept of motion; on the contrary, it must be regarded as an independent property of the space-time continuum. The principle of inertia, in particular, seems to compel us to ascribe physically objective properties to the space-time continuum. Just as it was consistent from the Newtonian standpoint to make both the statements, tempus est absolutum, spatium est absolutum, so from the standpoint of the special theory of relativity we must say, continuum spatii et temporis est absolutum. In this latter statement absolutum means not only "physically real", but also "independent in its physical properties, having a physical effect, but not itself influenced by physical conditions".

As long as the principle of inertia is regarded as the keystone of physics, this standpoint is certainly the only one which is justified. But there are two serious criticisms of the ordinary conception. In the first place, It is contrary to the mode of thinking in science to conceive of a thing (the space-time continuum) which acts itself, but which cannot be acted upon. This is the reason why E. Mach was led to make the attempt to eliminate space as an active cause in the system of mechanics. According to him, a material particle does not move in unaccelerated motion relatively to space, but relatively to the centre of all the other masses in the universe; in this way the series of causes of mechanical phenomena was closed, in contrast to the mechanics of Newton and Galileo. In order to develop this idea within the limits of the modern theory of action through a medium, the properties of the space-time continuum which determine inertia must be regarded as field properties of space, analogous to the electromagnetic field. The concepts of classical mechanics afford no way of expressing this. For this reason Mach's attempt at a solution failed for the time being. We shall come back to this point of view later. In the second place, classical mechanics exhibits a deficiency which directly calls for an extension of the principle of relativity to spaces of reference which are not in uniform motion relatively to each other. The ratio of the masses of two bodies is defined in mechanics in two ways which differ from each other fundamentally; in the first place, as the reciprocal ratio of the accelerations which the same motive force imparts to them (inert mass), and in the second place, as the ratio of the forces which act upon them in the same gravitational field (gravitational mass).
The equality of these two masses, so differently defined, is a fact which is confirmed by experiments of very high accuracy (experiments of Eötvös), and classical mechanics offers no explanation for this equality. It is, however, clear that science is fully justified in assigning such a numerical equality only after this numerical equality is reduced to an equality of the real nature of the two concepts.

That this object may actually be attained by an extension of the principle of relativity, follows from the following consideration. A little reflection will show that the law of the equality of the inert and the gravitational mass is equivalent to the assertion that the acceleration imparted to a body by a gravitational field is independent of the nature of the body. For Newton's equation of motion in a gravitational field, written out in full, is

(Inert mass) * (Acceleration) = (Intensity of the gravitational field) * (Gravitational mass)

It is only when there is numerical equality between the inert and gravitational mass that the acceleration is independent of the nature of the body. Let now K be an inertial system. Masses which are sufficiently far from each other and from other bodies are then, with respect to K, free from acceleration. We shall also refer these masses to a system of co-ordinates K', uniformly accelerated with respect to K . Relatively to K' all the masses have equal and parallel accelerations, with respect to K' they behave just as if a gravitational field were present and K' were unaccelerated. Overlooking for the present the question as to the 'cause' of such a gravitational field, which will occupy us later, there is nothing to prevent our conceiving this gravitational field as real, that is, the conception that K' is 'at rest' and a gravitational field is present we may consider as equivalent to the conception that only K is an 'allowable'' system of co-ordinates and no gravitational field is present.
The assumption of the complete physical equivalence of the systems of co-ordinates, K and K', we call the 'principle of equivalence'; this principle is evidently intimately connected with the law of the equality between the inert and the gravitational mass, and signifies an extension of the principle of relativity to co-ordinate systems which are in non-uniform motion relatively to each other. In fact, through this conception we arrive at the unity of the nature of inertia and gravitation. For, according to our way of looking at it the same masses may appear to be either under the action of inertia alone (with respect to K ) or under the combined action of inertia and gravitation (with respect to K' ).
The possibility of explaining the numerical equality of inertia and gravitation by the unity of their nature gives to the general theory of relativity, according to my conviction, such a superiority over the conceptions of classical mechanics, that all the difficulties encountered in development must be considered as small in comparison with this progress.

What justifies us in dispensing with the preference for inertial systems over all other co-ordinate systems, a preference that seems so securely established by experience? The weakness of the principle of inertia lies in this, that it involves an argument in a circle: a mass moves without acceleration if it is sufficiently far from other bodies; we know that it is sufficiently far from other bodies only by the fact that it moves without acceleration. Are there, at all, any inertial systems for very extended portions of the space-time continuum, or, indeed, for the whole universe ? We may look upon the principle or inertia as established, to a high degree of approximation, for the space of our planetary system, provided that we neglect the perturbations due to the sun and planets. Stated more exactly, there are finite regions, where, with respect to a suitably chosen space of reference, material particles move freely without acceleration, and in which the laws of the special theory of relativity, which have been developed above, hold with remarkable accuracy. Such regions we shall call 'Galilean regions'. We shall proceed from the consideration of such regions as a special case of known properties.

The principle of equivalence demands that in dealing with Galilean regions we may equally well make use of non-inertial systems, that is, such co-ordinate systems as, relatively to inertial systems, are not free from acceleration and rotation. If, further, we are going to do away completely with the vexing question as to the objective reason for the preference of certain systems of co-ordinates, then we must allow the use of arbitrarily moving systems of co-ordinates. As soon as we make this attempt seriously we come into conflict with that physical interpretation of space and time to which we were led by the special theory of relativity. For let K' be a system of co-ordinates whose z-axis coincides with the z-axis of K, and which rotates about the latter axis with constant angular velocity. Are the configurations of rigid bodies, at rest relatively to K', in accordance with the laws of Euclidean geometry?
Since K' is not an inertial system, we do not know directly the laws of configuration of rigid bodies with respect to K' , nor the laws of nature, in general. But we do know these laws with respect to the inertial system K, and we can therefore infer their form with respect to K'. Imagine a circle drawn about the origin in the x' y' plane of K', and a diameter of this circle. Imagine, further, that we have given a large number of rigid rods, all equal to each other. We suppose these laid in series along the periphery and the diameter of the circle, at rest relatively to K' . If U is the number of these rods along the periphery, D the number along the diameter, then, if K' does not rotate relatively to K, we shall have

U / D = pi

But if K' rotates we get a different result. Suppose that at a definite time t , of K we determine the ends of all the rods. With respect to K all the rods upon the periphery experience the Lorentz contraction, but the rods upon the diameter do not experience this contraction (along their lengths!). *note It therefore follows that

U / D > pi

It therefore follows that the laws of configuration of rigid bodies with respect to K' do not agree with the laws of configuration of rigid bodies that are in accordance with Euclidean geometry. If, further, we place two similar clocks (rotating with K' ), one upon the periphery, and the other at the centre of the circle, then, judged from K, the clock on the periphery will go slower than the clock at the centre. The same thing must take place, judged from K' , if we do not define time with respect to K' in a wholly unnatural way (that is, in such a way that the laws with respect to K' depend explicitly upon the time). Space and time, therefore, cannot be defined with respect to K' as they were in the special theory of relativity with respect to inertial systems. But, according to the principle of equivalence, K' may also be considered as a system at rest, with respect to which there is a gravitational field (field of centrifugal force, and force of Coriolis). We therefore arrive at the result: the gravitational field influences and even determines the metrical laws of the space-time continuum. If the laws of configuration of ideal rigid bodies are to be expressed geometrically, then in the presence of a gravitational field the geometry is not Euclidean.


* These considerations assume that the behaviour of rods and clocks depends only upon velocities, and not upon accelerations, or, at least, that the influence of acceleration does not counteract that of velocity.

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The Meaning of Relativity
Chapman and Hall, starting at page 54
ISBN 0-412-20560-2

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