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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe proper length.
  • Calculate length contraction.
  • Explain why we do not 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,

Questions & Answers

Determine the total force and the absolute pressure on the bottom of a swimming pool 28.0m by 8.5m whose uniform depth is 1 .8m.
Henny Reply
for the answer to complete, the units need specified why
muqaddas Reply
That's just how the AP grades. Otherwise, you could be talking about m/s when the answer requires m/s^2. They need to know what you are referring to.
Suppose a speck of dust in an electrostatic precipitator has 1.0000×1012 protons in it and has a net charge of –5.00 nC (a very large charge for a small speck). How many electrons does it have?
Alexia Reply
how would I work this problem
how can you have not an integer number of protons? If, on the other hand it supposed to be 1e12, then 1.6e-19C/proton • 1e12 protons=1.6e-7 C is the charge of the protons in the speck, so the difference between this and 5e-9C is made up by electrons
what is angular velocity
Obaapa Reply
angular velocity can be defined as the rate of change in radian over seconds.
Why does earth exert only a tiny downward pull?
Mya Reply
Why is light bright?
Abraham Reply
what is radioactive element
Attah Reply
an 8.0 capacitor is connected by to the terminals of 60Hz whoes rms voltage is 150v. a.find the capacity reactance and rms to the circuit
Aisha Reply
thanks so much. i undersooth well
Valdes Reply
what is physics
Nwafor Reply
is the study of matter in relation to energy
physics can be defined as the natural science that deals with the study of motion through space,time along with its related concepts which are energy and force
a submersible pump is dropped a borehole and hits the level of water at the bottom of the borehole 5 seconds later.determine the level of water in the borehole
Obrian Reply
what is power?
aron Reply
power P = Work done per second W/ t. It means the more power, the stronger machine
e.g. heart Uses 2 W per beat.
A spherica, concave shaving mirror has a radius of curvature of 32 cm .what is the magnification of a persons face. when it is 12cm to the left of the vertex of the mirror
Alona Reply
did you solve?
my name is Abu m.konnek I am a student of a electrical engineer and I want you to help me
the magnification k = f/(f-d) with focus f = R/2 =16 cm; d =12 cm k = 16/4 =4
what do we call velocity
A weather vane is some sort of directional arrow parallel to the ground that may rotate freely in a horizontal plane. A typical weather vane has a large cross-sectional area perpendicular to the direction the arrow is pointing, like a “One Way” street sign. The purpose of the weather vane is to indicate the direction of the wind. As wind blows pa
Kavita Reply
what about the wind vane
If a prism is fully imersed in water then the ray of light will normally dispersed or their is any difference?
Anurag Reply
the same behavior thru the prism out or in water bud abbot
If this will experimented with a hollow(vaccum) prism in water then what will be result ?
Practice Key Terms 2

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