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28: Special Relativity

Modern relativity is divided into two parts. Special relativity deals with observers who are moving at constant velocity. General relativity deals with observers who are undergoing acceleration. Einstein is famous because his theories of relativity made revolutionary predictions. Most importantly, his theories have been verified to great precision in a vast range of experiments, altering forever our concept of space and time. 

  • 28.0: Prelude to Special Relativity
    It is important to note that although classical mechanics, in general, and classical relativity, in particular, are limited, they are extremely good approximations for large, slow-moving objects. Otherwise, we could not use classical physics to launch satellites or build bridges. In the classical limit (objects larger than submicroscopic and moving slower than about 1% of the speed of light), relativistic mechanics becomes the same as classical mechanics.
  • 28.1: Einstein’s Postulates
    Relativity is the study of how different observers measure the same event. Modern relativity is correct in all circumstances and, in the limit of low velocity and weak gravitation, gives the same predictions as classical relativity. An inertial frame of reference is a reference frame in which a body at rest remains at rest and a body in motion moves at a constant speed in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force. Modern relativity is based on Einstein’s two postulates.
  • 28.2: Simultaneity and Time Dilation
    Two simultaneous events are not necessarily simultaneous to all observers—simultaneity is not absolute. Time dilation is the phenomenon of time passing slower for an observer who is moving relative to another observer. Observers moving at a relative velocity do not measure the same elapsed time for an event. Proper time is measured by an observer at rest relative to the event being observed and implies that relative velocity cannot exceed the speed of light.
  • 28.3: Length Contraction
    All observers agree upon relative speed. Distance depends on an observer’s motion. Proper length is the distance between two points measured by an observer who is at rest relative to both of the points. Earth-bound observers measure proper length when measuring the distance between two points that are stationary relative to the Earth. Length contraction is the shortening of the measured length of an object moving relative to the observer’s frame.
  • 28.4: Relativistic Addition of Velocities
    With classical velocity addition, velocities add vectorially. Relativistic velocity addition describes the velocities of an object moving at a relativistic speed. An observer of electromagnetic radiation sees relativistic Doppler effects if the source of the radiation is moving relative to the observer. The wavelength of the radiation is longer than that emitted by the source when the source moves away from the observer and shorter when the source moves toward the observer.
  • 28.5: Relativistic Momentum
    The law of conservation of momentum is valid whenever the net external force is zero and for relativistic momentum. Relativistic momentum is classical momentum multiplied by the relativistic factor. At low velocities, relativistic momentum is equivalent to classical momentum. Relativistic momentum approaches infinity as uu approaches cc . This implies that an object with mass cannot reach the speed of light. Relativistic momentum is conserved, just as classical momentum is conserved.
  • 28.6: Relativistic Energy
    Conservation of energy is one of the most important laws in physics. Not only does energy have many important forms, but each form can be converted to any other. We know that classically the total amount of energy in a system remains constant. Relativistically, energy is still conserved, provided its definition is altered to include the possibility of mass changing to energy, as in the reactions that occur within a nuclear reactor.
  • 28.E: Special Relativity (Exercise)

Thumbnail: A diagrammatic representation of spacetime. Image use with permission (CC-BY-SA 3.0; Stib).


  • Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).