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  • Describe proper length.
  • Calculate length contraction.
  • Explain why we don’t notice these effects at everyday scales.
A long isolated double-lane road banked by barren land on both sides.
People might describe distances differently, but at relativistic speeds, the distances really are different. (credit: Corey Leopold, Flickr)

Have you ever driven on a road that seems like it goes on forever? If you look ahead, you might say you have about 10 km left to go. Another traveler might say the road ahead looks like it’s about 15 km long. If you both measured the road, however, you would agree. Traveling at everyday speeds, the distance you both measure would be the same. You will read in this section, however, that this is not true at relativistic speeds. Close to the speed of light, distances measured are not the same when measured by different observers.

Proper length

One thing all observers agree upon is relative speed. Even though clocks measure different elapsed times for the same process, they still agree that relative speed, which is distance divided by elapsed time, is the same. This implies that distance, too, depends on the observer’s relative motion. If two observers see different times, then they must also see different distances for relative speed to be the same to each of them.

The muon discussed in [link] illustrates this concept. To an observer on the Earth, the muon travels at 0.950 c size 12{c} {} for 7.05 μ s size 12{c} {} from the time it is produced until it decays. Thus it travels a distance

L 0 = v Δ t = ( 0.950 ) ( 3.00 × 10 8 m/s ) ( 7.05 × 10 6 s ) = 2.01 km

relative to the Earth. In the muon’s frame of reference, its lifetime is only 2.20 μ s . It has enough time to travel only

L = v Δ t 0 = ( 0 . 950 ) ( 3 . 00 × 10 8 m/s ) ( 2 . 20 × 10 6 s ) = 0 .627 km .

The distance between the same two events (production and decay of a muon) depends on who measures it and how they are moving relative to it.

Proper length

Proper length L 0 size 12{L rSub { size 8{0} } } {} is the distance between two points measured by an observer who is at rest relative to both of the points.

The Earth-bound observer measures the proper length L 0 size 12{L rSub { size 8{0} } } {} , because the points at which the muon is produced and decays are stationary relative to the Earth. To the muon, the Earth, air, and clouds are moving, and so the distance L size 12{L} {} it sees is not the proper length.

In part a observer observes from ground frame of reference a muon above earth with speed v in the rightward direction. The distance between the muon and the place where it disintegrates is two point zero one. In part b the system is shown in motion having velocity v in the leftward direction. So, the cloud and ground are displaced zero point six two seven kilo meter in the opposite direction.
(a) The Earth-bound observer sees the muon travel 2.01 km between clouds. (b) The muon sees itself travel the same path, but only a distance of 0.627 km. The Earth, air, and clouds are moving relative to the muon in its frame, and all appear to have smaller lengths along the direction of travel.

Length contraction

To develop an equation relating distances measured by different observers, we note that the velocity relative to the Earth-bound observer in our muon example is given by

v = L 0 Δ t . size 12{v= { {L rSub { size 8{0} } } over {Δt} } } {}

The time relative to the Earth-bound observer is Δ t size 12{Δt} {} , since the object being timed is moving relative to this observer. The velocity relative to the moving observer is given by

v = L Δ t 0 . size 12{v= { {L rSub { size 8{0} } } over {Δt} } } {}

The moving observer travels with the muon and therefore observes the proper time Δ t 0 size 12{Δt rSub { size 8{0} } } {} . The two velocities are identical; thus,

L 0 Δ t = L Δ t 0 . size 12{ { {L rSub { size 8{0} } } over {Δt} } = { {L} over {Δt rSub { size 8{0} } } } } {}

We know that Δ t = γ Δ t 0 size 12{Δt=γΔt rSub { size 8{0} } } {} . Substituting this equation into the relationship above gives

Questions & Answers

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Xolani Reply
movement in a direction
Jason
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Hosea
Explain why magnetic damping might not be effective on an object made of several thin conducting layers separated by insulation? can someone please explain this i need it for my final exam
anas Reply
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saeid
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Yimam
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while
Hosea
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thomas Reply
this is the mass of an atom of an element in ratio with the mass of carbon-atom
Chukwuka
show me how to get the accuracies of the values of the resistors for the two circuits i.e for series and parallel sides
Jesuovie Reply
Explain why it is difficult to have an ideal machine in real life situations.
Isaac Reply
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Promise
what's the s . i unit for couple?
Promise
its s.i unit is Nm
Covenant
Force×perpendicular distance N×m=Nm
Oluwakayode
İt iş diffucult to have idêal machine because of FRİCTİON definitely reduce thê efficiency
Oluwakayode
if the classica theory of specific heat is valid,what would be the thermal energy of one kmol of copper at the debye temperature (for copper is 340k)
Zaharadeen Reply
can i get all formulas of physics
BPH Reply
yes
haider
what affects fluid
Doreen Reply
pressure
Oluwakayode
Dimension for force MLT-2
Promise Reply
what is the dimensions of Force?
Osueke Reply
how do you calculate the 5% uncertainty of 4cm?
melia Reply
4cm/100×5= 0.2cm
haider
how do you calculate the 5% absolute uncertainty of a 200g mass?
melia Reply
= 200g±(5%)10g
haider
use the 10g as the uncertainty?
melia
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haider
topic of question?
haider
the relationship between the applied force and the deflection
melia
sorry wrong question i meant the 5% uncertainty of 4cm?
melia
its 0.2 cm or 2mm
haider
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melia
Hello group...
Chioma
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haider
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sean
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Chibueze
10g
Olokuntoye
0.2m
Olokuntoye
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thomas
Practice Key Terms 2

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Source:  OpenStax, College physics. OpenStax CNX. Jul 27, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11406/1.9
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