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College Physics for AP® Courses 2e

28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation

College Physics for AP® Courses 2e28.2 Simultaneity And Time Dilation

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe simultaneity.
  • Describe time dilation.
  • Calculate γ.
  • Compare proper time and the observer’s measured time.
  • Explain why the twin paradox is a false paradox.
A runner crossing a finishing line on a road with a clock showing his finish time.
Figure 28.4 Elapsed time for a foot race is the same for all observers, but at relativistic speeds, elapsed time depends on the relative motion of the observer and the event that is observed. (credit: Jason Edward Scott Bain, Flickr)

Do time intervals depend on who observes them? Intuitively, we expect the time for a process, such as the elapsed time for a foot race, to be the same for all observers. Our experience has been that disagreements over elapsed time have to do with the accuracy of measuring time. When we carefully consider just how time is measured, however, we will find that elapsed time depends on the relative motion of an observer with respect to the process being measured.


Consider how we measure elapsed time. If we use a stopwatch, for example, how do we know when to start and stop the watch? One method is to use the arrival of light from the event, such as observing a light turning green to start a drag race. The timing will be more accurate if some sort of electronic detection is used, avoiding human reaction times and other complications.

Now suppose we use this method to measure the time interval between two flashes of light produced by flash lamps. (See Figure 28.5.) Two flash lamps with observer A midway between them are on a rail car that moves to the right relative to observer B. Observer B arranges for the light flashes to be emitted just as A passes B, so that in B’s frame, both A and B are equidistant from the lamps when the light is emitted. Observer B measures the time interval between the arrival of the light flashes. According to postulate 2, the speed of light is not affected by the motion of the lamps relative to B. Therefore, light travels equal distances to him at equal speeds. Thus, observer B measures the flashes to be simultaneous. Since in B’s frame, A is moving to the right, B will measure the light from the right bulb and arrive at observer A before the light from the left bulb arrives at observer A.

A girl as observer A is sitting down midway on a rail car with two flash lamps at opposite sides equidistant from her. Multiple light rays that are emitted from respective flash lamps towards observer A are shown with arrows. A velocity vector arrow for the rail car is shown towards the right. A male observer B standing on the platform is facing her. Now observer A moves with the lamps on a rail car that is as the rail car moves towards the right of observer B. Observer B receives the light flashes simultaneously, but he notes that observer A receives the flash from the right first. B observes the flashes to be simultaneous to him but not to A.
Figure 28.5 Observer B measures the elapsed time between the arrival of light flashes as described in the text. Observer A moves with the lamps on a rail car. Observer B views the light flashes occurring simultaneously. Observer B views the light on the right reaching observer A before the light on the left does.

Now consider what observer A sees happening. Since both lamps are the same distance from her in her reference frame and the train is moving to the right, she perceives the flash from the right-hand bulb occurring before the left-hand bulb. Since in her frame, the flashes are not emitted at the same time, they also do not arrive at the same time. Here, a relative velocity between observers affects whether two events are observed to be simultaneous. Simultaneity is not absolute.. Note, however, that both A and B agree on the order of the flashes arriving at A’s location.

This illustrates the power of clear thinking. We might have guessed incorrectly that if light is emitted simultaneously, then two observers halfway between the sources would see the flashes simultaneously. But careful analysis shows this not to be the case. Einstein was brilliant at this type of thought experiment (in German, “Gedankenexperiment”). He very carefully considered how an observation is made and disregarded what might seem obvious. The validity of thought experiments, of course, is determined by actual observation. The genius of Einstein is evidenced by the fact that experiments have repeatedly confirmed his theory of relativity.

In summary: Two events are defined to be simultaneous if an observer measures them as occurring at the same time (such as by receiving light from the events). Two events are not necessarily simultaneous to all observers.

Time Dilation

The consideration of the measurement of elapsed time and simultaneity leads to an important relativistic effect.

Time dilation

Time dilation is the phenomenon of time passing slower for an observer who is moving relative to another observer.

Suppose, for example, an astronaut measures the time it takes for light to cross her ship, bounce off a mirror, and return. (See Figure 28.6.) How does the elapsed time the astronaut measures compare with the elapsed time measured for the same event by a person on the Earth? Asking this question (another thought experiment) produces a profound result. We find that the elapsed time for a process depends on who is measuring it. In this case, the time measured by the astronaut is smaller than the time measured by the Earth-bound observer. The passage of time is different for the observers because the distance the light travels in the astronaut’s frame is smaller than in the Earth-bound frame. Light travels at the same speed in each frame, and so it will take longer to travel the greater distance in the Earth-bound frame.

For part a, an astronaut is standing inside the spaceship with an electronic timer. The timer is showing the time delta-t-zero. The astronaut has to measure time for an activity which has a mirror, the Sun as a source of light, and a receiver. A ray from the light source is striking the mirror and getting reflected back to the receiver. The distance between the source of light and mirror is given by d. For part b, the same activity is observed by a man standing on Earth. He has an electronic timer showing the time as delta-t. For the observer on earth the activity is fragmented into three portions. In the first portion, the ray of light is travelling a distance of and strikes the mirror in the second portion. The third portion shows the reflected ray of light striking the receiver represented by s and having a vertical distance of d. The horizontal distance L observed by the man from the beginning of the event till the end portion is given as L equals to velocity v into delta t upon two.
Figure 28.6 (a) An astronaut measures the time Δt0Δt0 for light to cross her ship using an electronic timer. Light travels a distance 2D2D in the astronaut’s frame. (b) A person on the Earth sees the light follow the longer path 2s2s and take a longer time ΔtΔt. (c) These triangles are used to find the relationship between the two distances 2D2D and 2s2s.

To quantitatively verify that time depends on the observer, consider the paths followed by light as seen by each observer. (See Figure 28.6(c).) The astronaut sees the light travel straight across and back for a total distance of 2D2D, twice the width of her ship. The Earth-bound observer sees the light travel a total distance 2s2s. Since the ship is moving at speed vv to the right relative to the Earth, light moving to the right hits the mirror in this frame. Light travels at a speed cc in both frames, and because time is the distance divided by speed, the time measured by the astronaut is


This time has a separate name to distinguish it from the time measured by the Earth-bound observer.

Proper Time

Proper time Δt0Δt0 is the time measured by an observer at rest relative to the event being observed.

In the case of the astronaut observe the reflecting light, the astronaut measures proper time. The time measured by the Earth-bound observer is


To find the relationship between Δt0Δt0 and ΔtΔt, consider the triangles formed by DD and ss. (See Figure 28.6(c).) The third side of these similar triangles is LL, the distance the astronaut moves as the light goes across her ship. In the frame of the Earth-bound observer,


Using the Pythagorean Theorem, the distance ss is found to be


Substituting ss into the expression for the time interval ΔtΔt gives


We square this equation, which yields

(Δt)2=4D2+v2(Δt)24c2= 4 D 2 c 2 +v2c2(Δt)2.(Δt)2=4D2+v2(Δt)24c2= 4 D 2 c 2 +v2c2(Δt)2.

Note that if we square the first expression we had for Δt0Δt0, we get (Δt0)2= 4 D 2 c2(Δt0)2= 4 D 2 c2. This term appears in the preceding equation, giving us a means to relate the two time intervals. Thus,


Gathering terms, we solve for ΔtΔt:




Taking the square root yields an important relationship between elapsed times:

Δt=Δt01 v2c2=γΔt0,Δt=Δt01 v2c2=γΔt0,



This equation for ΔtΔt is truly remarkable. First, as contended, elapsed time is not the same for different observers moving relative to one another, even though both are in inertial frames. Proper time Δt0Δt0 measured by an observer, like the astronaut moving with the apparatus, is smaller than time measured by other observers. Since those other observers measure a longer time ΔtΔt, the effect is called time dilation. The Earth-bound observer sees time dilate (get longer) for a system moving relative to the Earth. Alternatively, according to the Earth-bound observer, time slows in the moving frame, since less time passes there. All clocks moving relative to an observer, including biological clocks such as aging, are observed to run slow compared with a clock stationary relative to the observer.

Note that if the relative velocity is much less than the speed of light (v<<cv<<c), then v2c2v2c2 is extremely small, and the elapsed times ΔtΔt and Δt0Δt0 are nearly equal. At low velocities, modern relativity approaches classical physics—our everyday experiences have very small relativistic effects.

The equation Δt= γ Δ t0 Δt= γ Δ t0 also implies that relative velocity cannot exceed the speed of light. As vv approaches cc, ΔtΔt approaches infinity. This would imply that time in the astronaut’s frame stops at the speed of light. If vv exceeded cc, then we would be taking the square root of a negative number, producing an imaginary value for ΔtΔt.

There is considerable experimental evidence that the equation Δt=γΔt0Δt=γΔt0 is correct. One example is found in cosmic ray particles that continuously rain down on the Earth from deep space. Some collisions of these particles with nuclei in the upper atmosphere result in short-lived particles called muons. The half-life (amount of time for half of a material to decay) of a muon is 1.52μs1.52μs when it is at rest relative to the observer who measures the half-life. This is the proper time Δt0Δt0. Muons produced by cosmic ray particles have a range of velocities, with some moving near the speed of light. It has been found that the muon’s half-life as measured by an Earth-bound observer (ΔtΔt) varies with velocity exactly as predicted by the equation Δt=γΔt0Δt=γΔt0. The faster the muon moves, the longer it lives. We on the Earth see the muon’s half-life time dilated—as viewed from our frame, the muon decays more slowly than it does when at rest relative to us.

Example 28.1

Calculating ΔtΔt for a Relativistic Event: How Long Does a Speedy Muon Live?

Suppose a cosmic ray colliding with a nucleus in the Earth’s upper atmosphere produces a muon that has a velocity v=0.950cv=0.950c. The muon then travels at constant velocity and lives 1.52μs1.52μs as measured in the muon’s frame of reference. (You can imagine this as the muon’s internal clock.) How long does the muon live as measured by an Earth-bound observer? (See Figure 28.7.)

A muon is moving far above the earth. A teenage boy is looking towards the muon. A velocity vector arrow V starting from Muon is pointing toward the boy. A clock depicting time delta-t-zero is shown near the muon, and another time clock depicting the time delta-t is shown near the boy.
Figure 28.7 A muon in the Earth’s atmosphere lives longer as measured by an Earth-bound observer than measured by the muon’s internal clock.


A clock moving with the system being measured observes the proper time, so the time we are given is Δt0=1.52μsΔt0=1.52μs. The Earth-bound observer measures ΔtΔt as given by the equation Δt= γΔt0 Δt= γΔt0 . Since we know the velocity, the calculation is straightforward.


1) Identify the knowns. v=0.950cv=0.950c, Δt0=1.52μsΔt0=1.52μs

2) Identify the unknown. ΔtΔt

3) Choose the appropriate equation.




γ=11 v2c2 .γ=11 v2c2 .

4) Plug the knowns into the equation.

First find γγ.

γ = 1 1 v 2 c 2 = 1 1 ( 0.950 c ) 2 c 2 = 1 1 ( 0.950 ) 2 = 3.20. γ = 1 1 v 2 c 2 = 1 1 ( 0.950 c ) 2 c 2 = 1 1 ( 0.950 ) 2 = 3.20.

Use the calculated value of γγ to determine ΔtΔt.

Δ t = γΔt 0 = ( 3.20 ) ( 1.52 μ s ) = 4.87 μ s Δ t = γΔt 0 = ( 3.20 ) ( 1.52 μ s ) = 4.87 μ s


One implication of this example is that since γ=3.20γ=3.20 at 95.0%95.0% of the speed of light (v=0.950cv=0.950c), the relativistic effects are significant. The two time intervals differ by this factor of 3.20, where classically they would be the same. Something moving at 0.950c0.950c is said to be highly relativistic.

Another implication of the preceding example is that everything an astronaut does when moving at 95.0%95.0% of the speed of light relative to the Earth takes 3.20 times longer when observed from the Earth. Does the astronaut sense this? Only if she looks outside her spaceship. All methods of measuring time in her frame will be affected by the same factor of 3.20. This includes her wristwatch, heart rate, cell metabolism rate, nerve impulse rate, and so on. She will have no way of telling, since all of her clocks will agree with one another because their relative velocities are zero. Motion is relative, not absolute. But what if she does look out the window?

Real-World Connections

It may seem that special relativity has little effect on your life, but it is probably more important than you realize. One of the most common effects is through the Global Positioning System (GPS). Emergency vehicles, package delivery services, electronic maps, and communications devices are just a few of the common uses of GPS, and the GPS system could not work without taking into account relativistic effects. GPS satellites rely on precise time measurements to communicate. The signals travel at relativistic speeds. Without corrections for time dilation, the satellites could not communicate, and the GPS system would fail within minutes.

The Twin Paradox

An intriguing consequence of time dilation is that a space traveler moving at a high velocity relative to the Earth would age less than her Earth-bound twin. Imagine the astronaut moving at such a velocity that γ=30.0γ=30.0, as in Figure 28.8. A trip that takes 2.00 years in her frame would take 60.0 years in her Earth-bound twin’s frame. Suppose the astronaut traveled 1.00 year to another star system. She briefly explored the area, and then traveled 1.00 year back. If the astronaut was 40 years old when she left, she would be 42 upon her return. Everything on the Earth, however, would have aged 60.0 years. Her twin, if still alive, would be 100 years old.

The situation would seem different to the astronaut. Because motion is relative, the spaceship would seem to be stationary and the Earth would appear to move. (This is the sensation you have when flying in a jet.) If the astronaut looks out the window of the spaceship, she will see time slow down on the Earth by a factor of γ=30.0γ=30.0. To her, the Earth-bound sister will have aged only 2/30 (1/15) of a year, while she aged 2.00 years. The two sisters cannot both be correct.

There are two sections in this figure. In the first section a young woman is shown standing on the Earth and her twin is standing in a traveling spaceship. There is a clock beside each of the women showing equal time. In the second section of the figure it is shown that the traveling twin ages less than the Earth-bound twin and the Earth-bound twin is looking older. In the clocks it is shown that on Earth time runs faster than on the traveling spaceship.
Figure 28.8 The twin paradox asks why the traveling twin ages less than the Earth-bound twin. That is the prediction we obtain if we consider the Earth-bound twin’s frame. In the astronaut’s frame, however, the Earth is moving and time runs slower there. Who is correct?

As with all paradoxes, the premise is faulty and leads to contradictory conclusions. In fact, the astronaut’s motion is significantly different from that of the Earth-bound twin. The astronaut accelerates to a high velocity and then decelerates to view the star system. To return to the Earth, she again accelerates and decelerates. The Earth-bound twin does not experience these accelerations. So the situation is not symmetric, and it is not correct to claim that the astronaut will observe the same effects as her Earth-bound twin. If you use special relativity to examine the twin paradox, you must keep in mind that the theory is expressly based on inertial frames, which by definition are not accelerated or rotating. Einstein developed general relativity to deal with accelerated frames and with gravity, a prime source of acceleration. You can also use general relativity to address the twin paradox and, according to general relativity, the astronaut will age less. Some important conceptual aspects of general relativity are discussed in General Relativity and Quantum Gravity of this course.

In 1971, American physicists Joseph Hafele and Richard Keating verified time dilation at low relative velocities by flying extremely accurate atomic clocks around the Earth on commercial aircraft. They measured elapsed time to an accuracy of a few nanoseconds and compared it with the time measured by clocks left behind. Hafele and Keating’s results were within experimental uncertainties of the predictions of relativity. Both special and general relativity had to be taken into account, since gravity and accelerations were involved as well as relative motion.

Check Your Understanding

1. What is γγ if v=0.650cv=0.650c?

2. A particle travels at 1.90×108 m/s1.90×108 m/s and lives 2.10×108 s2.10×108 s when at rest relative to an observer. How long does the particle live as viewed in the laboratory?

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