Reference Frames

Everything is relative!

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Individual observers describe physics using physical quantities defined with respect to their own reference frame, such as the relative velocity of an object (compared to that of the observer). Yet the physics itself is independent of the reference frame used to describe it. This key idea already had a substantial impact on Newtonian physics, but its most famous consequence is that it leads to Einstein's theory of special relativity. This course will consider both of these aspects.

We will start with Newtonian physics and a discussion of inertial frames. Next, we will describe physics on a rotating Earth in terms of apparent centrifugal and Coriolis forces due to the use of rotating frames. The heart of the course is to then extend the use of multiple frames of reference from the Newtonian framework to Einstein's special theory of relativity. After first contrasting Galilean and Lorentz transformations, the underlying geometric ideas will be emphasized and used to resolve the standard "paradoxes". Finally, the beautiful unification of electricity and magnetism provided by special relativity will be presented.

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©1997 & 1998 Tevian Dray