October 19, 2011

Relativity-6: Measuring time and space more precisely

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I said that Einstein's claim that the speed of light must be the same when measured by all observers irrespective of how they were moving led to the conclusion that the rate at which time elapsed must depend on the state of motion of the observer. But if time is not an invariant entity, then we need to be more precise about how we measure it for observers in relative motion to one another so that we can better determine how their measurements are related.

What we now postulate is that associated with each observer is a grid of rulers that spreads out into all space in all directions. At each point in space are also a clock and a recorder. It is assumed that all the rulers and clocks of all the observers are constructed to be identical to each other, the clocks are properly synchronized, and the recorders never make errors. When an event occurs anywhere at any time, the location and time of that event are those noted by that recorder who happens to be exactly at the location of the event and who notes the ruler and clock readings located at the place at the instant when the event occurred. This rules out the need to make corrections for the time that elapses for the light to travel from the location of the event to the recorder.

If there is another observer who is moving with respect to the first, that person too will have her own set of rulers and clocks and recorders spread out through all space, and the location and time of an event will be that noted by her recorder using her rulers and clocks at the location where the event occurs. This set up seems rather extravagant in its requirement of infinite numbers of rulers and clocks and recorders but of course all these rulers and clocks and recorders are merely hypothetical except for the ones we actually need in any given experiment. The key point to bear in mind is that the location and time of an event for any observer is now unambiguously defined to be that given by that observer's ruler and clock readings at the location of the event, as noted by the observer's recorder located right there.

What 'Einstein causality' says is that if event A causes event B, then event A must have occurred before event B and this must be true for all observers. If one observer said that one event caused another and thus the two events had a particular ordering in time, all observers would agree on that ordering. Thus causality was assumed to be a universal property.

What we mean by 'causes' is that event B occurs because of some signal sent by A that reaches B. So when the person at B is shot by the person at A, the signal that caused the event is the bullet that traveled from A to B. Hence the clock reading at event A must be earlier than the clock reading at event B, and this muust be true for every observer's clocks, irrespective of how that observer is moving, as long as (according to Einsteinian relativity) the observer is moving at a speed less than that of light. The magnitude of the time difference between the two events will vary according to the state of motion of the observer, but the sign will never be reversed. In other words, it will never be the case that any observer's clocks will say that event B occurred at a clock reading that is earlier than the clock reading of event A.

But according to Einstein's theory of relativity, this holds only if the signal that causally connects event A to B travels at speeds less than that of light. If event B is caused by a signal that is sent from A at a speed V that is greater than that of light c (as was claimed to be the case with the neutrinos in the CERN-Gran Sasso experiment) then it can be shown (though I will not do so here) that an observer traveling at a speed of c2/V or greater (but still less than the speed of light) will find that the clock reading of when the signal reached B would actually be earlier than the clock reading of when the signal left A. This would be a true case of the effect preceding the cause. The idea that different observers would not be able to agree on the temporal ordering of events that some observers see as causally connected would violate Einstein causality and this is what the faster-than-light neutrino reports, if confirmed, would imply.

Note that this violation of Einstein causality occurs even though the observer is moving at speeds less than that of light. All it requires is that the signal that was sent from A to B to be traveling faster than light.

(If the observer herself can travel faster than the speed of light (which is far less likely to occur in reality than having an elementary particle like a neutrino doing so), then one can have other odd results. For example, if the speed of light is 1 m/s and I could travel at 2 m/s, then one can imagine the following scenario. I could (say) dance for five seconds. The light signals from the beginning of my dance would have traveled 5 meters away by the time my dance ended. If at the end of my five-second dance, I traveled at 2 m/s for 5 seconds, then I would reach a point 10 meters away at the same time as the light that was emitted at the beginning of my dance. So if I look back to where I came from, I could see me doing my own dance as the light from it reaches me. So I would be observing my own past in real time. This would be weird, no doubt, but in some sense would not be that much different from watching home movies of something I did before. It would not be, by itself, a violation of Einstein causality since there is no sense in which the time ordering of causal events has been reversed.)

So the violation of Einstein causality, not the theory of relativity itself, is really what is at stake in the claims that neutrinos traveling at speeds faster than light have been observed. This is still undoubtedly a major development, which is why the community is abuzz and somewhat wary of immediately accepting it is true.

Next: What could be other reasons for the CERN-Gran Sasso results?


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