Sunday, November 29, 2015

Special Relativity and General Relativity Explained With A Ten Hundred Word Vocabulary

A quite lucid explanation of special relativity and general relativity with a limited vocabulary by Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has been reprinted at the New Yorker. A taste:
There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn’t grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that’s how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean “someone who’s good at thinking.”

Two of his biggest ideas were about how space and time work. This thing you’re reading right now explains those ideas using only the ten hundred words people use the most often. The doctor figured out the first idea while he was working in an office, and he figured out the second one ten years later, while he was working at a school. That second idea was a hundred years ago this year. (He also had a few other ideas that were just as important. People have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he was so good at thinking.)

The first idea is called the special idea, because it covers only a few special parts of space and time. The other one—the big idea—covers all the stuff that is left out by the special idea. The big idea is a lot harder to understand than the special one. People who are good at numbers can use the special idea to answer questions pretty easily, but you have to know a lot about numbers to do anything with the big idea. To understand the big idea—the hard one—it helps to understand the special idea first.

1 comment:

capra internetensis said...

Thanks for linking that! Nice explanation of time dilation near massive objects and the effect on Mercury.

Special relativity I can handle, it's just geometry with a bizarro world Pythagorean theorem, but general relativity is a pain.