INTRODUCTION

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In 1976, just before he died, Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of the modern theory of quantum mechanics, the physics of the atom, made a remarkable statement. He said that he had two questions that he wanted to ask God: Why Relativity? and Why turbulence? He then went on to declare his confidence that God would have an answer to the first of those questions. Dr. Heisenberg's intent in making that statement may have been facetious. Though he is better known for discovering the matrix formulation of quantum mechanics and for drawing from it his famous indeterminacy principle, he actually expended some effort in his youth toward gaining an understanding of turbulence, the chaotic motions that arise spontaneously in moving fluids. His deathbed statement may have been no more than a tongue-in-cheek expression of vexation over the fact that physicists had gained no significant understanding of turbulence in his lifetime. The idea that God would answer the first question readily and the second perhaps not at all plays on the popular idea that Relativity itself has no rationale behind it, that it stands before us as a mystery forever inaccessible to human reason.

As Heisenberg's quantum theory does, this theory of Einstein's defies our intuitive understanding of Reality, appears so contrary to our experience of the world, that we expect to discover that Nature laid its foundations in patterns that we mere mortals can have no hope of ever comprehending. This implied irrationality of Nature has added its bleak color to Twentieth-Century thinking about Science to such an extent that we are properly astonished by the idea that the relationship between space and time is relativistic for a perfectly comprehensible reason, that reason being that we live in a universe of finite extent. Even more astonishing, we can demonstrate that idea in a straightforwardly rational way.

I shall begin this series of essays with that demonstration. Beginning with the simplest possible axioms, I shall deduce Einstein's two postulates of Relativity. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done such a thing before, so this part constitutes my own contribution to Special Relativity.

Then I shall lay out, much as Einstein did, the derivation of the rules (in place of the equations) of the Lorentz Transformation. That set of rules contains within it the relatively familiar phenomena of time dilation (that is, the phenomenon of some moving clocks running slow relative to stationary clocks) and the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction, which shortens moving objects. Again following Einstein's lead, I shall work out those rules through the use of certain caricatures of familiar situations to aid your imagination: in particular, I shall ask you to imagine the operations of a railroad in a world in which the speed of light is merely one hundred miles per hour. As improbable as it seems, such fantasies do, indeed, yield valid results.

Finally I shall apply the rules of the Lorentz Transformation to the dynamics of bodies. I shall focus your attention onto the relativistic effects of motion on mass, momentum, and energy, aiming your thoughts at deducing, as Einstein did, and explaining the most famous equation in the world. Thus, you shall have a full explanation of the theory of Special Relativity.

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