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By Leiwen Wu. Albert Einstein. The Special and General Theory of Relativity and his Thought Experiments. A Little About Albert Einstein. Born: 14 March 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany Died: 18 April 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA

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albert einstein

By Leiwen Wu

Albert Einstein

The Special and General Theory of Relativity and his Thought Experiments

a little about albert einstein
A Little About Albert Einstein
  • Born: 14 March 1879 in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany
  • Died: 18 April 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey, USA
  • Einstein contributed more than any other scientist to the modern vision of physical reality. His special and general theories of relativity are still regarded as the most satisfactory model of the large-scale universe that we have.
brief overview of the genius
Brief Overview of the Genius
  • 1879: Einstein born Ulm, Germany.
  • 1885 - 1925: Michelson and Morley began a series of puzzling experiments which made the Newtonian Universe impossible.
  • 1900: Max Planck shocked the physics community with the concept of quantization
  • 1905: The miracle year in physics: Einstein published papers on Brownian motion as well as the seminal papers on his theory of relativity. He developed the Special Theory of Relativity in which he described how space and time are relative or related to each other.
  • 1915: Einstein extended his discussion of relativity to include gravity and thereby explained the problem of Mercury. He developed the general theory of relativity which dealt with gravity and acceleration and a 4 dimensional space in which everything is related to each other.
  • 1919: Eddington confirms Einstein's prediction concerning deflection of starlight.
  • 1915 - 1925: Einstein was a co-leader in the birth and development of quantum mechanics
  • 1925 - 1935: Einstein and Bohr engaged in a fascinating series of "debates" over the interpretations of physics especially the notion of determinism (God does not play dice)
  • 1930 - 1955: Einstein searches for a unified theory of the universe
  • 1933 - Hubble and Humanson discover the recessional nature of galaxies - Einstein's theories of the universe take shape.
  • 1955: Einstein dies, Princeton, N.J.
einstein s personal life
Einstein’s Personal Life
  • Einstein marries Mileva in 1903
  • Mileva divorced Einstein in 1914
  • Einstein married his cousin Elsa in 1919

II. The acceleration of a body is inversely proportional to

its mass, directly proportional to the net force, and in

the same direction as the net force.

F = ma

Newton’s Laws of Motion

I. A body continues at rest or in uniform motion in a

straight line unless acted on by some net force.  

III. To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.



r 2

F = -

Newton’s Law of Gravitation:

where G is the “gravitational constant,”

M is the mass of the larger body,

m is the mass of the smaller body,

r is the separation between them. 


Gravity and Orbital Motion

The gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Moon causes the Moon to orbit around the Earth rather than moving in a straight line.





vesc =

Newton's Laws: Gravity and Motion

  • If a rocket is fired up from Earth, gravity will slow it down so that it either:
  • falls back to Earth
  • enters a closed orbit around the Earth
  • escapes from Earth

Cannon ball applet:


Newton and Kepler

Newton showed that objects moving along closed orbits under the influence of gravity follow elliptical paths. 

Recall: Kepler’s First Law


Newton and Kepler

Newton also showed that objects in these orbits conserve angular momentum.

Recall: Kepler’s Second Law


Newton and Kepler

An object orbiting in a circle around mass M has speed

The orbital period of this object is the circumference of its orbit divided by its speed :


Recall: Kepler's Third Law

quantum theory of light
Quantum Theory of Light
  • Before Einstein, people thought that space, the empty space in our universe, composed of things called ether.
  • Einstein thought that light came in tiny packets, or particles called photons.
  • It was the most shocking idea about our universe:
  • We live in a quantum universe built out of tiny, discrete chunks of energy and matter.
  • Einstein would later try to combine the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics in his unified theory which would explain our whole universe. Unfortunately, he died before he was able to complete it.
the making of the special theory of relativity
The making of the special Theory of Relativity
  • The Special theory of Relativity disproves Newton’s long held idea that space and time are absolute
  • It creates a whole new way of thinking about our universe
  • It creates a four dimensional universe where everything is related
  • Special relativity is much simpler mathematically than general relativity, but harder to visualize and imagine.

Einstein was 26 when he devised the special theory of relativity

the special theory of relativity explained
The Special theory of Relativity Explained
  • The special theory of relativity states that time and space(distance) is relative or depends on each other
  • Everything is related to each other and is not absolute.
  • Newton thought that time is the same every where.
  • Special relativity disproves

1 year old

Imagine two twin brothers.

One in a space ship and one on the launch pad

Now the spaceship travels at 99.9% of light for 100 years earth time

100 years old

Time to both are very different.


Postulates of the Special Theory of Relativity

1. Observers cannot detect absolute uniform motion,

only motion relative to other objects

– or –

The laws of physics are the same for all observers.

2. The speed of light is the same for all observers,

independent of their motion relative to the source

of the light.


If c were not absolute, you’d see car A reach the collision

point before car B! You would see a different event!


Consequences of an

absolute speed of light

for all observers:

time dilation


Einstein’s View of Gravitation

In his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein explained the force of attraction between massive objects in this way:

“Mass tells space-time how to curve, and the curvature of space-time tells masses how to accelerate.”


Gravity à la Einstein

Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted that light paths should be affected by massive objects.


Gravity à la Einstein

Einstein’s predictions were confirmed when the positions of stars near the sun were observed to be shifted during a 1919 solar eclipse.

the making of the general theory of relativity
The Making of the General Theory of Relativity
  • Einstein was 36 when he developed the theory of relativity.
  • Einstein came up with this when he imagined a man falling of the roof.
the general theory of relativity explained
The General Theory of Relativity Explained
  • Einstein Discovered in his General Theory of Relativity that gravity and acceleration are the same phenomenon.

Imagine an elevator and a person standing in it.

What would happen to the person if the elevator free-falls?

The person would be floating in the elevator while it is free-falling.

Now Imagine that person in a space ship far away from any gravitational force. He would be floating in the ship.

If the ship the person is in accelerates at the right amount of speed, the person would feel the same as if gravity was pulling on him.

general relativity conclusion
General Relativity Conclusion
  • Einstein concluded that 4 dimensional

Principle of Equivalence: Einstein 1907

Box stationary in gravity field



in empty space


falling freely

Box moves through

space at constant velocity

equivalence principle
Equivalence Principle
  • Special relativity: all uniformly moving frames are equivalent, i.e., no acceleration
  • Equivalence principle:

Gravitational field = acceleration

freely falling frames in GR


uniformly moving frames in SR.


Aberration of Light

Moral: direction of light beam is relative


Gravitational deflection of Light

Now assume boxes are accelerating

Light path is curved


Light ray curved in accelerating frame

Principle of Equivalence (acceleration = gravity)

Gravity attracts light!

mass energy equivalence

Gravity extracts energy from escaping matter

Gravity extracts energy from escaping light

Gravitational redshift, time dilation

Other points of view same result:

  • accelerating frames of reference - apply special relativity
  • spacetime is curved


  • This equation is the most important single result of relativity theory
  • It’s the idea that mass and energy are equivalent.
  • Energy = mass times the speed of light squared
  • E=m, the c squared is just to express how much energy can be made from one unit of mass.
curved spacetime
Curved Spacetime
  • Remember: Gravity warps time

BUT: in spacetime, time and space are not separable


=> Both space and time are curved (warped)

This is a bit hard to vizualize (spacetime already 4D…)




  • Problem:
  • Gravity decreases with distance => stretch…



  • Tides = gravity changes from place to place

not freely falling





freely falling

not freely falling

curvature of spacetime
  • How to tell difference between accelerating frame and gravity?
    • tidal forces curvature
  • Eliminates Newton’s “action at a distance”
  • Freely moving bodies follow “shortest path”
    • not necessarily a straight line
general relativity einstein 1915
  • Matter + energy determine curvature of spacetime
  • Curvature of spacetime determines motion of matter + energy
light rays and gravity ii
Light Rays and Gravity II
  • In SR: light rays travel on straight lines

=> in freely falling frame, light travels on straight lines

  • BUT: to stationary observer light travels on curved paths

=> Maybe gravity has something to do with…

curvature of space ?


GR: Einstein, 1915

  • Einstein: mass/energy squeeze/stretch spacetime away from being “flat”
  • Moving objects follow curvature (e.g., satellites, photons)
  • The equivalence principle guarantees: spacetime is “locally” flat
  • The more mass/energy there is in a given volume, the more spacetime is distorted in and around that volume.
gr einstein 1915
GR: Einstein, 1915
  • Einstein’s “field equations” correct “action at a distance” problem:

Gravity information propagates at the speed of light

=> gravitational waves


curvature in 2d
Curvature in 2D…
  • Imagine being an ant… living in 2D
  • You would understand:

left, right, forward, backward,

but NOT up/down…

  • How do you know your world is curved?
curvature in 2d1



Curvature in 2D…
  • In a curved space, Euclidean geometry does not apply:

- circumference  2 R

- triangles  180°

- parallel lines don’t stay parallel




  • To do geometry, we need a way to measure distances

=> use ant (let’s call the ant “metric”), count steps it has to take on its way from P1 to P2 (in spacetime, the ant-walk is a bit funny looking, but never mind that)

  • Geodesic: shortest line between P1 and P2

(the fewest possible ant steps)






  • To the ant, the geodesic is a straight line,

i.e., the ant neverhas toturn

  • In SR and in freely falling frames, objects move in straight lines (uniform motion)
  • In GR, freely falling objects(freely falling: under the influence of gravity only, no rocket engines and such; objects: apples, photons, etc.)

move on geodesics in spacetime.

experimental evidence for gr


Experimental Evidence for GR
  • If mass is small / at large distances, curvature is weak

=> Newton’s laws are good approximation

  • But: Detailed observations confirm GR

1) Orbital deviations for Mercury (perihelion precession)



Experimental Evidence for GR

2) Deflection of light

black holes
Black Holes
  • What happens as the star shrinks / its mass increases? How much can spacetime be distorted by a very massive object?
  • Remember: in a Newtonian black hole, the escape speed simply exceeds the speed of light

=> Can gravity warp spacetime to the point where even light cannot escape its grip?

That, then, would be a black hole.

black holes2
Black Holes
  • Time flows more slowly near a massive object,

space is “stretched” out (circumference < 2R)

  • Critical: the ratio of circumference/mass of the object.

If this ratio is small, GR effects are large (i.e., more mass within same region or same mass within smaller region)

1) massive

2) small



the schwarzschild radius
The Schwarzschild Radius





  • GR predicts: If mass is contained in a circumference smaller than a certain size

space time within and around that mass concentration qualitatively changes. A far away observer would locate this critical surface at a radius

  • Gravitational time dilation becomes infinite as one approaches the critical surface.

speed of





black holes3
Black Holes
  • To a stationary oberserver far away, time flow at the critical surface (at RS) is slowed down infinitely.
  • Light emitted close to the critical surface is severely red-shifted (the frequency is lower) and at the critical surface, the redshift is infinite.

From inside

this region

no information

can escape


red-shifted into


black holes4
Black Holes
  • Inside the critical surface, spacetime is so warped that objects cannot move outward at all, not even light.

=> Events inside the critical surface can never affect the region outside the critical surface, since no information about them can escape gravity.

=> We call this surface the event horizon

because it shields the outside completely from any events on the inside.

black holes5
Black Holes



  • Critical distinction to the Newtonian black hole:

Nothing ever leaves the horizon of a GR black hole.

  • Lots of questions…

What happens to matter falling in?

What happens at the center?

Can we observe black holes anyway?

And much, much more…

conclusion unified theory
Conclusion: Unified Theory
  • The unified theory is Einstein’s attempt to combine quantum mechanics and his two Theories of Relativity
  • Einstein wanted this to be the most perfect idea of the universe
  • Einstein never finished and died.
  • Einstein moved to Princeton, NJ to escape the Nazis
  • Einstein was Jewish, but did not practice the religion until the end. He believed that the universe was so complex that only God could have created it.