Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Special Relativity Works


The First Postulate of Special Relativity

The first postulate of the theory of special relativity is not too hard to swallow: The laws of physics hold true for all frames of reference. This is the simplest of all relativistic concepts to grasp. The physical laws help us understand how and why our environment reacts the way it does. They also allow us to predict events and their outcomes. Consider a yardstick and a cement block. If you measure the length on the block, you will get the same result regardless of whether you are standing on the ground or riding a bus. Next, measure the time it takes a pendulum to make 10 full swings from a starting height of 12 inches above its resting point. Again, you will get the same results whether you are standing on the ground or riding a bus. Note that we are assuming that the bus is not accelerating, but traveling along at a constant velocity on a smooth road. Now if we take the same examples as above, but this time measure the block and time the pendulum swings as they ride past us on the bus, we will get different results than our previous results. The difference in the results of our experiments occurs because the laws of physics remain the same for all frames of reference. The discussion of the Second Postulate will explain this in more detail. It is important to note that just because the laws of physics are constant, it does not mean that we will get the same experimental results in differing frames. That depends on the nature of the experiment. For example, if we crash two cars into each other, we will find that the energy was conserved for the collision regardless of whether we were in one of the cars or standing on the sidewalk. Conservation of energy is a physical law and therefore, must be the same in all reference frames.

The Second Postulate of the Special Theory of Relativity

The second postulate of the special theory of relativity is quite interesting and unexpected because of what it says about frames of reference. The postulate is: The speed of light is measured as constant in all frames of reference. This can really be described as the first postulate in different clothes. If the laws of physics apply equally to all frames of reference, then light (electromagnetic radiation) must travel at the same speed regardless of the frame. This is required for the laws of electrodynamics to apply equally for all frames.

We'll take a closer look at the second postulate in the next section.