Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Special Relativity Works


2.0 - Special Relativity

You are now familiar with the major players in the universe: space, time, matter, motion, mass, gravity, energy and light. The neat thing about Special Relativity is that many of the simple properties discussed in section 1 behave in very unexpected ways in certain specific "relativistic" situations. The key to understanding special relativity is understanding the effects that relativity has on each property.

Frames of Reference

Einstein's special theory of relativity is based on the idea of reference frames. A reference frame is simply "where a person (or other observer) happens to be standing". You, at this moment, are probably sitting at your computer. That is your current reference frame. You feel like you are stationary, even though you know the earth is revolving on its axis and orbiting around the sun. Here is an important fact about reference frames: There is no such thing as an absolute frame of reference in our universe. By saying absolute, what is actually meant is that there is no place in the universe that is completely stationary. This statement says that since everything is moving, all motion is relative. Think about it - the earth itself is moving, so even though you are standing still, you are in motion. You are moving through both space and time at all times. Because there is no place or object in the universe that is stationary, there is no single place or object on which to base all other motion. Therefore, if John runs toward Hunter, it could be correctly viewed two ways. From Hunter's perspective, John is moving towards Hunter. From John's perspective, Hunter is moving towards John. Both John and Hunter have the right to observe the action from their respective frames of reference. All motion is relative to your frame of reference. Another example: If you throw a ball, the ball has the right to view itself as being at rest relative to you. The ball can view you as moving away from it, even though you view the ball as moving away from you. Keep in mind that even though you are not moving with respect to the earth's surface, you are moving with the earth.

We'll look at the first postulate of special relativity in the next section.