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I believe I can write a five sentence(?) explanation of the (Special / General?) Theory of Relativity. In fact, I will make a first attempt below. If I manage it, it is only because I can stand OnTheShouldersOfGiants.

The (Special / General?) Theory of Relativity in Five Sentences or less (or maybe, how it came about):

Aside: This is based, very loosely, on my recollections of things I've read including books like Stephen Hawkins "A Brief History of Time", Tenth Anniversary Edition. At some point I will review parts of that book (or others) and try to clean up some of the following that may be inaccurate or misleading.

  • Scientists discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe, and in fact rotated around the sun, and the sun and planets rotate around the center of our galaxy, and our galaxy rotates around the (a?) center of the universe. (Oops, I sort of missed the point -- the real point is that the earth and solar system moves, the earth is not the stationary center of the universe. This becomes important when we start measuring the speed of light in the direction we are moving and perpendicular to it.)
  • Scientists tried to measure the speed of light. They found it was so fast that it was very difficult (though not impossible) to measure on earth, so they started devising experiments to measure the speed of light between planets. (If light travels 186,000 miles per second, where on earth can you use a measured course and a stopwatch to check it's speed? (Actually, scientists did find ways to do that -- things like the Michelson-Morley experiment and the interferometer (or are they the same thing.)
  • In mearsuring the speed of light (in space) they found something very strange (to understand the strangeness, you might want to read WhyATrainWhistleGoesWheeeUuuuh). When light was "projected" from a moving object, they expected it to move faster if projected in the same direction that the moving object was moving, and slower if projected in the opposite direction. It did not.
  • Scientists scratched their heads. (I should have pointed out that scientists did that before, and scratched more than that. How many years did it take before people (and scientists) agreed with Galileo that the earth was not the center of the universe? For how many hundreds or thousands of years did we (humans) believe an incorrect "fact". We, collectively, were scratching our heads. (Maybe I need a different analogy here.)
  • Scientists scratched their heads. They did more experiments. Results kept coming out the same way. (When they were not faked -- an unsupported sentence that leads off into a different digression -- maybe to be explored later.)
  • Scientists said "this is really wierd". Some scientists (Einstein) said, hmm, suppose it is true. What would come from that. Einstein said, if that is true, then I can represent that with some (strange) mathematic equations, and some of the results of that include that matter is equivalent to energy (E=mc2), if we move at close to the speed of light, mass increases, time slows down, etc. (I'm not a physicist -- I need to review and restate these things, there is an underlying element of "truth" to what I'm trying to say here, I may not be saying it correctly at all.)
  • A potential footnote: Lorentz (or others) said it was wierd before Einstein, and Lorentz might have even started the wierd mathematical equations to at least create a mathematical representation of what was happening. (The Lorentz contraction, IIRC -- was that for length, or time, or both, or ???)
  • Scientists laughed at Einstein. (I don't really know whether they did or not.)
  • Scientists laughed at Einstein. (I don't really know whether they did or not.)
  • Some scientists started devising experiments to prove Einstein wrong. They ususally couldn't.
  • Today most scientists generally accept the theory of relativity. (Well, actually, I need to review and possibly restate this -- Stephen Hawking (in A Brief History of Time), IIRC, pointed to some of the areas where the Theory of Relativity no longer appears to be sufficient or is not consistent with some new experimental results, or something like that.)

So, why did I go through this. I wanted to provide an explanation of the Theory of Relativity that anybody could understand. I know I sort of sidestepped that issue -- it is more an explanation of how the theory was developed. I think I could go a little bit further in explaining the implications of the theory (yeah, but I touched on those -- just need to confirm those are correct (slowdown of time, etc.).

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  • () RandyKramer - 14 Jul 2002
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