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How Special Relativity Works


The Second Postulate of Relativity

This postulate is very odd if you think about it for a moment. Here is one fact you can derive from the postulate: Regardless of whether you are flying in an airplane or sitting on the couch, the speed of light would measure the same to you in both situations. The reason that is unexpected is because most physical objects that we deal with in the world add their speeds together. Consider a convertible approaching you at a speed of 50 miles/hour. The passenger pulls out a slingshot and shoots a rock 20 miles/hour at you. If you measured the speed of the rock, you would expect it to be traveling at 70 miles/hour (the speed of the car plus the speed of the rock from the slingshot). That is, in fact, what happens. If the driver measured the speed of the rock, he would only measure 20 miles/hour, since he is already moving at 50 miles/hour with the car. Now if that same car is approaching you at 50 miles/hour and the driver turns on the headlights, something different happens? Since the speed of light is known to be 669,600,000 miles/hour, common sense tells us that the car's speed plus the headlight beam speed gives a total of 669,600,050 miles/hour (50 miles/hour + 669,600,000 miles/hour). The actual speed would measure 669,600,000 miles/hour, exactly the speed of light. To understand why this happens, we must look at our notion of speed.

Speed is the distance traveled in a given amount of time. For example, if you travel 60 miles in one hour, your speed is 60 miles per hour. We can easily change our speed by accelerating and decelerating. In order for the speed of light to be constant, even if the light is "launched" from a moving object, only two things can be happening. Either something about our notion of distance and/or something about our notion of time must be skewed. As it turns out, both are skewed. Remember, speed is distance divided by time.

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