Relativity: The Special and General Theory HTML version

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
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 negative.
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