The Relativity of Beards

In my first-year module on Mechanics and Special Relativity, I’ve just moved on to the part about Special Relativity and this afternoon I’m going to talk about the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction or, as it’s properly called here in Ireland, the Fitzgerald-Lorentz contraction.

The first thing to point out is that the physicists George Francis Fitzgerald and Hendrik Lorentz, though of different nationality (the former Irish, the latter Dutch), both had fine beards:

George Francis Fitzgerald (1851-1901)

Hendrik Lorentz (1853-1928)

One of the interesting things you find if you read about the history of physics just before Albert Einstein introduced his theory of special relativity in 1905 was how many people seemed to be on the verge of getting the idea around about the same time. Fitzgerald and Lorentz were two were almost there; Poincaré was another. It was like special relativity was `in the air’ at the time. It did, however, take a special genius like Einstein to crystallize all that thinking into a definite theory.

Special relativity is fun to teach, not least because it throws up interesting yet informative paradoxes (i.e. apparent logical contradictions) arising from  that you can use to start a discussion. They’re not actually paradoxes really logical contradictions, of course. They just challenge `common sense’ notions, which is a good thing to do to get people thinking.

Anyway, I thought I’d mention one of my favorite such paradoxes arising from a simple Gedankenerfahrung (thought experiment) here.

Imagine you are in a railway carriage moving along a track at constant speed relative to the track. The carriage is dark, but at the centre of the carriage is a flash bulb. At one end (say the front) of the carriage is a portrait of Lorentz and at the other (say the back) a portrait of Fitzgerald; the pictures are equidistant from the bulb and next to each portrait is a clock.The two clocks are synchronized in the rest frame of the carriage.

At a particular time the flash bulb goes off, illuminating both portraits and both clocks for an instant.

It is an essential postulate of special relativity that the speed of light is the same to observers in any inertial frame, so that an observer at rest in the centre of the carriage sees both portraits illuminated simultaneously as indicated by the adjacent clocks. This is because the symmetry of the situation means that light has to travel the same distance to each portrait and back.

Now suppose we view the action from the point of view of a different inertial observer, at rest by the trackside rather than on the train, who is positioned right next to the centre of the carriage as the flash goes off. The flight flash travels with the same speed in the second observer’s frame, but this observer sees* the back of the carriage moving towards the light signal and the front moving away. The result is therefore that this observer sees the two portraits light up at different times. In this case the portrait of Fitzgerald is lit up before the portrait of Lorentz.

Had the train been going in the opposite direction, Lorentz would have appeared before Fitzgerald. That just shows that whether its Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction or Fitzgerald-Lorentz contraction is just a matter of your frame of reference…

But that’s not the paradoxical thing. The paradox is although the two portraits appear at different times to the trackside observer, the clocks still appear show the same time….


*You have to use your imagination a bit here, as the train has to be travelling at a decent fraction of the speed of light. It’s certainly not an Irish train.




9 Responses to “The Relativity of Beards”

  1. Pedant’s corner:

    > [Special Relativity] throws up interesting yet informative paradoxes arising from that you can use to start a discussion. They’re not actually paradoxes, of course. They just challenge `common sense’ notions, which is a good thing to do to get people thinking.

    In fact, they are exactly paradoxes, which are seeming, not real, contradictions, although the word is sometimes incorrectly used as a synonym for just plain “contradictions”.

  2. Michel C. Says:

    The length of the beards is relative…

  3. […] a post a couple of days ago I mentioned the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, whose work helped establish the foundations of the […]

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    It might be noted that George Fitzgerald was a pioneer of photoelectric photometry in astronomy. He provided William H. S. Monck with the equipment that allowed Monck to use a selenium photovoltaic cell on his telescope in Dublin. They later used a photovoltaic cell on William Wilson’s 24-inch telescope at Daramona in County Westmeath.

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