Until the turn of the 20th century, the assumption had been that the three-dimensional geometry of the universe (its spatial expression in terms of coordinates, distances, and directions) was independent of one-dimensional time. However, in 1905, Albert Einstein based his seminal work on special relativity on two postulates: (1) The laws of physics are invariant (i.e., identical) in all inertial systems (i.e., non-accelerating frames of reference); (2) The speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the motion of the light source.
The logical consequence of taking these postulates together is the inseparable joining together of the four dimensions, hitherto assumed as independent, of space and time. Many counterintuitive consequences emerge: in addition to being independent of the motion of the light source, the speed of light has the same speed regardless of the frame of reference in which it is measured; the distances and even temporal ordering of pairs of events change when measured in different inertial frames of reference (this is the relativity of simultaneity); and the linear additivity of velocities no longer holds true.
In 1908, Hermann Minkowski—once one of the math professors of a young Einstein in Zürich—presented a geometric interpretation of special relativity that fused time and the three spatial dimensions of space into a single four-dimensional continuum now known as Minkowski space. A key feature of this interpretation is the formal definition of the spacetime interval. Although measurements of distance and time between events differ for measurements made in different reference frames, the spacetime interval is independent of the inertial frame of reference in which they are recorded.
Non-relativistic classical mechanics treats time as a universal quantity of measurement which is uniform throughout space and which is separate from space. Classical mechanics assumes that time has a constant rate of passage that is independent of the state of motion of an observer, or indeed of anything external. Furthermore, it assumes that space is Euclidean, which is to say, it assumes that space follows the geometry of common sense.
In the context of special relativity, time cannot be separated from the three dimensions of space, because the observed rate at which time passes for an object depends on the object's velocity relative to the observer. General relativity, in addition, provides an explanation of how gravitational fields can slow the passage of time for an object as seen by an observer outside the field.
In ordinary space, a position is specified by three numbers, known as dimensions. In the Cartesian coordinate system, these are called x, y, and z. A position in spacetime is called an event, and requires four numbers to be specified: the three-dimensional location in space, plus the position in time (Fig. 1). Spacetime is thus four dimensional. An event is something that happens instantaneously at a single point in spacetime, represented by a set of coordinates x, y, z and t.
The word "event" used in relativity should not be confused with the use of the word "event" in normal conversation, where it might refer to an "event" as something such as a concert, sporting event, or a battle. These are not mathematical "events" in the way the word is used in relativity, because they have finite durations and extents. Unlike the analogies used to explain events, such as firecrackers or lightning bolts, mathematical events have zero duration and represent a single point in spacetime.
The path of a particle through spacetime can be considered to be a succession of events. The series of events can be linked together to form a line which represents a particle's progress through spacetime. That line is called the particle's world line.:105
Mathematically, spacetime is a manifold, which is to say, it appears locally "flat" near each point in the same way that, at small enough scales, a globe appears flat. An extremely large scale factor, (conventionally called the speed-of-light) relates distances measured in space with distances measured in time. The magnitude of this scale factor (nearly 300,000 kilometres or 190,000 miles in space being equivalent to one second in time), along with the fact that spacetime is a manifold, implies that at ordinary, non-relativistic speeds and at ordinary, human-scale distances, there is little that humans might observe which is noticeably different from what they might observe if the world were Euclidean. It was only with the advent of sensitive scientific measurements in the mid-1800s, such as the Fizeau experiment and the Michelson–Morley experiment, that puzzling discrepancies began to be noted between observation versus predictions based on the implicit assumption of Euclidean space.
Figure 1-1. Each location in spacetime is marked by four numbers defined by a frame of reference: the position in space, and the time (which can be visualized as the reading of a clock located at each position in space). The 'observer' synchronizes the clocks according to their own reference frame.
In special relativity, an observer will, in most cases, mean a frame of reference from which a set of objects or events are being measured. This usage differs significantly from the ordinary English meaning of the term. Reference frames are inherently nonlocal constructs, and according to this usage of the term, it does not make sense to speak of an observer as having a location. In Fig. 1‑1, imagine that the frame under consideration is equipped with a dense lattice of clocks, synchronized within this reference frame, that extends indefinitely throughout the three dimensions of space. Any specific location within the lattice is not important. The latticework of clocks is used to determine the time and position of events taking place within the whole frame. The term observer refers to the entire ensemble of clocks associated with one inertial frame of reference.:17–22 In this idealized case, every point in space has a clock associated with it, and thus the clocks register each event instantly, with no time delay between an event and its recording. A real observer, however, will see a delay between the emission of a signal and its detection due to the speed of light. To synchronize the clocks, in the data reduction following an experiment, the time when a signal is received will be corrected to reflect its actual time were it to have been recorded by an idealized lattice of clocks.
In many books on special relativity, especially older ones, the word "observer" is used in the more ordinary sense of the word. It is usually clear from context which meaning has been adopted.
Figure 1-2. Michelson and Morley expected that motion through the aether would cause a differential phase shift between light traversing the two arms of their apparatus. The most logical explanation of their negative result, aether dragging, was in conflict with the observation of stellar aberration.
By the mid-1800s, various experiments such as the observation of the Arago spot (a bright point at the center of a circular object's shadow due to diffraction) and differential measurements of the speed of light in air versus water were considered to have proven the wave nature of light as opposed to a corpuscular theory. Propagation of waves was then assumed to require the existence of a medium which waved: in the case of light waves, this was considered to be a hypothetical luminiferous aether.[note 1] However, the various attempts to establish the properties of this hypothetical medium yielded contradictory results. For example, the Fizeau experiment of 1851 demonstrated that the speed of light in flowing water was less than the sum of the speed of light in air plus the speed of the water by an amount dependent on the water's index of refraction. Among other issues, the dependence of the partial aether-dragging implied by this experiment on the index of refraction (which is dependent on wavelength) led to the unpalatable conclusion that aether simultaneously flows at different speeds for different colors of light. The famous Michelson–Morley experiment of 1887 (Fig. 1‑2) showed no differential influence of Earth's motions through the hypothetical aether on the speed of light, and the most likely explanation, complete aether dragging, was in conflict with the observation of stellar aberration.
George Francis FitzGerald in 1889 and Hendrik Lorentz in 1892 independently proposed that material bodies traveling through the fixed aether were physically affected by their passage, contracting in the direction of motion by an amount that was exactly what was necessary to explain the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment. (No length changes occur in directions transverse to the direction of motion.)
By 1904, Lorentz had expanded his theory such that he had arrived at equations formally identical with those that Einstein were to derive later (i.e. the Lorentz transform), but with a fundamentally different interpretation. As a theory of dynamics (the study of forces and torques and their effect on motion), his theory assumed actual physical deformations of the physical constituents of matter.:163–174 Lorentz's equations predicted a quantity that he called local time, with which he could explain the aberration of light, the Fizeau experiment and other phenomena. However, Lorentz considered local time to be only an auxiliary mathematical tool, a trick as it were, to simplify the transformation from one system into another.
Other physicists and mathematicians at the turn of the century came close to arriving at what is currently known as spacetime. Einstein himself noted, that with so many people unraveling separate pieces of the puzzle, "the special theory of relativity, if we regard its development in retrospect, was ripe for discovery in 1905."
An important example is Henri Poincaré,:73–80,93–95 who in 1898 argued that the simultaneity of two events is a matter of convention.[note 2] In 1900, he recognized that Lorentz's "local time" is actually what is indicated by moving clocks by applying an explicitly operational definition of clock synchronization assuming constant light speed.[note 3] In 1900 and 1904, he suggested the inherent undetectability of the aether by emphasizing the validity of what he called the principle of relativity, and in 1905/1906 he mathematically perfected Lorentz's theory of electrons in order to bring it into accordance with the postulate of relativity. While discussing various hypotheses on Lorentz invariant gravitation, he introduced the innovative concept of a 4-dimensional space-time by defining various four vectors, namely four-position, four-velocity, and four-force. He did not pursue the 4-dimensional formalism in subsequent papers, however, stating that this line of research seemed to "entail great pain for limited profit", ultimately concluding "that three-dimensional language seems the best suited to the description of our world". Furthermore, even as late as 1909, Poincaré continued to believe in the dynamical interpretation of the Lorentz transform.:163–174 For these and other reasons, most historians of science argue that Poincaré did not invent what is now called special relativity.
In 1905, Einstein introduced special relativity (even though without using the techniques of the spacetime formalism) in its modern understanding as a theory of space and time. While his results are mathematically equivalent to those of Lorentz and Poincaré, it was Einstein who showed that the Lorentz transformations are not the result of interactions between matter and aether, but rather concern the nature of space and time itself. He obtained all of his results by recognizing that the entire theory can be built upon two postulates: The principle of relativity and the principle of the constancy of light speed.
Einstein performed his analyses in terms of kinematics (the study of moving bodies without reference to forces) rather than dynamics. His seminal work introducing the subject was filled with vivid imagery involving the exchange of light signals between clocks in motion, careful measurements of the lengths of moving rods, and other such examples.[note 4]
In addition, Einstein in 1905 superseded previous attempts of an electromagnetic mass-energy relation by introducing the general equivalence of mass and energy, which was instrumental for his subsequent formulation of the equivalence principle in 1907, which declares the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. By using the mass-energy equivalence, Einstein showed, in addition, that the gravitational mass of a body is proportional to its energy content, which was one of early results in developing general relativity. While it would appear that he did not at first think geometrically about spacetime,:219 in the further development of general relativity Einstein fully incorporated the spacetime formalism.
When Einstein published in 1905, another of his competitors, his former mathematics professor Hermann Minkowski, had also arrived at most of the basic elements of special relativity. Max Born recounted a meeting he had made with Minkowski, seeking to be Minkowski's student/collaborator:
I went to Cologne, met Minkowski and heard his celebrated lecture 'Space and Time' delivered on 2 September 1908. […] He told me later that it came to him as a great shock when Einstein published his paper in which the equivalence of the different local times of observers moving relative to each other was pronounced; for he had reached the same conclusions independently but did not publish them because he wished first to work out the mathematical structure in all its splendor. He never made a priority claim and always gave Einstein his full share in the great discovery.
Minkowski had been concerned with the state of electrodynamics after Michelson's disruptive experiments at least since the summer of 1905, when Minkowski and David Hilbert led an advanced seminar attended by notable physicists of the time to study the papers of Lorentz, Poincaré et al. However, it is not at all clear when Minkowski began to formulate the geometric formulation of special relativity that was to bear his name, or to which extent he was influenced by Poincaré's four-dimensional interpretation of the Lorentz transformation. Nor is it clear if he ever fully appreciated Einstein's critical contribution to the understanding of the Lorentz transformations, thinking of Einstein's work as being an extension of Lorentz's work.
Figure 1-4. Hand-colored transparency presented by Minkowski in his 1908 Raum und Zeit lecture
On November 5, 1907 (a little more than a year before his death), Minkowski introduced his geometric interpretation of spacetime in a lecture to the Göttingen Mathematical society with the title, The Relativity Principle (Das Relativitätsprinzip).[note 5] On September 21, 1908, Minkowski presented his famous talk, Space and Time (Raum und Zeit), to the German Society of Scientists and Physicians. The opening words of Space and Time include Minkowski's famous statement that "Henceforth, space for itself, and time for itself shall completely reduce to a mere shadow, and only some sort of union of the two shall preserve independence." Space and Time included the first public presentation of spacetime diagrams (Fig. 1‑4), and included a remarkable demonstration that the concept of the invariant interval (discussed below), along with the empirical observation that the speed of light is finite, allows derivation of the entirety of special relativity.[note 6]
Einstein, for his part, was initially dismissive of Minkowski's geometric interpretation of special relativity, regarding it as überflüssige Gelehrsamkeit (superfluous learnedness). However, in order to complete his search for general relativity that started in 1907, the geometric interpretation of relativity proved to be vital, and in 1916, Einstein fully acknowledged his indebtedness to Minkowski, whose interpretation greatly facilitated the transition to general relativity.:151–152 Since there are other types of spacetime, such as the curved spacetime of general relativity, the spacetime of special relativity is today known as Minkowski spacetime.