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Relativity: The Special and General Theory
Albert Einstein: Relativity
Part I: The Special Theory of Relativity
The Principle of Relativity
(in the restricted sense)
In order to attain the greatest possible clearness, let us return to our example of the railway
carriage supposed to be travelling uniformly. We call its motion a uniform translation ("uniform"
because it is of constant velocity and direction, " translation " because although the carriage
changes its position relative to the embankment yet it does not rotate in so doing). Let us imagine a
raven flying through the air in such a manner that its motion, as observed from the embankment, is
uniform and in a straight line. If we were to observe the flying raven from the moving railway
carriage. we should find that the motion of the raven would be one of different velocity and
direction, but that it would still be uniform and in a straight line. Expressed in an abstract manner
we may say : If a mass m is moving uniformly in a straight line with respect to a co−ordinate system
K, then it will also be moving uniformly and in a straight line relative to a second co−ordinate
system K1 provided that the latter is executing a uniform translatory motion with respect to K. In
accordance with the discussion contained in the preceding section, it follows that:
If K is a Galileian co−ordinate system. then every other co−ordinate system K' is a Galileian one,
when, in relation to K, it is in a condition of uniform motion of translation. Relative to K1 the
mechanical laws of Galilei−Newton hold good exactly as they do with respect to K.
We advance a step farther in our generalisation when we express the tenet thus: If, relative to K,
K1 is a uniformly moving co−ordinate system devoid of rotation, then natural phenomena run their
course with respect to K1 according to exactly the same general laws as with respect to K. This
statement is called the principle of relativity (in the restricted sense).
As long as one was convinced that all natural phenomena were capable of representation with the
help of classical mechanics, there was no need to doubt the validity of this principle of relativity. But
in view of the more recent development of electrodynamics and optics it became more and more
evident that classical mechanics affords an insufficient foundation for the physical description of all
natural phenomena. At this juncture the question of the validity of the principle of relativity became
ripe for discussion, and it did not appear impossible that the answer to this question might be in the
Nevertheless, there are two general facts which at the outset speak very much in favour of the
validity of the principle of relativity. Even though classical mechanics does not supply us with a
sufficiently broad basis for the theoretical presentation of all physical phenomena, still we must
grant it a considerable measure of " truth," since it supplies us with the actual motions of the
heavenly bodies with a delicacy of detail little short of wonderful. The principle of relativity must
therefore apply with great accuracy in the domain of mechanics. But that a principle of such broad
generality should hold with such exactness in one domain of phenomena, and yet should be invalid
for another, is a priori not very probable.
We now proceed to the second argument, to which, moreover, we shall return later. If the principle
of relativity (in the restricted sense) does not hold, then the Galileian co−ordinate systems K, K1,
K2, etc., which are moving uniformly relative to each other, will not be equivalent for the description
of natural phenomena. In this case we should be constrained to believe that natural laws are
capable of being formulated in a particularly simple manner, and of course only on condition that,