A first-person view of Special Relativity

by Oliver Pereira (M.Sc. Part 1)


Newton’s laws were believed to be the correct description of the physics of the universe until 1905 when Einstein found and corrected an error in the law. The second law had assumed incorrectly that an object’s mass is a constant which was corrected by adding a factor ‘gamma’ that depends on the object’s velocity. And that really is all there is to special relativity (SR) in a nutshell. [Feynman’s Lectures: Volume 1]

Looking at it this way, it is rather hard to believe that this tiny modification has revealed incredible yet experimentally verifiable phenomena such as time dilation and length contraction and has (along with general relativity) changed our perception of space and time. Quite naturally the theory has had its fair share of scepticism because although most of the math behind it is easy, their implications are difficult to understand. We’ll try to explore how SR can have some interesting consequences for observers.

A fun thought would be to use special relativity to visualize what an object travelling close to ‘c’ would look like. At first, you might think that the entity in question would simply look squished along its direction of travel. But it isn’t quite that simple – because things don’t always look like what they are. On a serious note, although length contraction would affect the appearance of the rocket, there’s something else at play too. When we look at an object passing by us, we inherently assume that the light that reaches our eyes w