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Relative Velocity of two particles

  1. May 5, 2010 #1
    Dont know if this has been discussed here before..
    If two relativistic particles are travelling with speeds 'u' &'v' ,how to calculate the relative velocity?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 5, 2010 #2


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  4. May 5, 2010 #3
    Much thanks!!!
  5. May 5, 2010 #4

    1. If the particles are travelling at speeds "u" respectively "v" wrt a common frame of reference then the answer is u+v if they travel towards each other or u-v if they are travel in the same direction.

    2. If particle A travels at speed "u" wrt a frame of reference and particle B travels at speed "v" wrt A then the answer is simply v.
    (the speed "u" has no influence on the answer, this is not a problem about relativistic speed composition)

    Judging by the way you asked your question, the answer is (surprisingly) the one at point 1.
    Last edited: May 5, 2010
  6. May 5, 2010 #5


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    Starthaus, you got most (if not all) of that wrong. Would you like to try again? :smile:
  7. May 5, 2010 #6
    Yes, the second half of the answer was wrong, I wasn't paying attention, I corrected it.
    The fact stands that the answer is option 1 and that, in any case, the answer has nothing to do with relativistic speed composition. In fact, the correct answer is orthogonal to relativity altogether.
    Apparently the notion of "closing"and "separation" speed are not well known. The answer to the Op's question is, suprisingly, option 1. It is very simple to prove to yourself:

    If two particles travel towards each other at speeds u and v measured in the SAME frame, then, they cover the distance between them according to the equation:



    [tex]w=\frac{dX}{dt}=\frac{dx_1}{dt}+ \frac{dx_2}{dt}=u+v[/tex]

    If the particles "chase" each other, then, their "separation" is:


    so, their relative speed is:

    [tex]w=\frac{dX}{dt}=\frac{dx_1}{dt}- \frac{dx_2}{dt}=u-v[/tex]

    The above rules work just the same for accelerations and all the higher time derivatives.
    Closing and separation speed work according to very different rules than the speed composition in SR. Neither answer (option 1 or 2 ) has anything to do with the relativistic composition of speeds.
    Last edited: May 5, 2010
  8. May 5, 2010 #7


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    Guess what, according to Wikipedia, as well as the links therein, starthaus is right. There seems to be some kind of edit war, but I'd be interested whether there are reliable sources for this, IMHO nutty, definition. Can it be that there are serious relativists who define it as the vector difference of velocities in a common IS? Any sources?
  9. May 5, 2010 #8
    Closing or separation speed has often come up and been explained in this forum although I cannot immediately give a link. The closing/separation speed of two material objects can approach 2c. But of course their velocity relative to each other is less than c as measured in either of their rest frames and no material object moves faster than c.

  10. May 5, 2010 #9


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    Which Wikipedia article? There are dozens about various aspects of relativity.
  11. May 5, 2010 #10


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    Yes, I know there were attemtps here to give the vector difference a name that distiguishes it from relative velocity. My concern is that the WP article calls exaclty this quantity the "relative velocity". There are also links from trustworthy sites that give the same definition, albeit always in a non-relativistic context.
    But what really bothers me (from the discussion to this article):
    Now that one is really scary.
  12. May 5, 2010 #11
    thank you, Ich

    The answer has nothing to do with relativity, it is just basic physics.
    Besides, it is not a definition, it falls straight out of basic math.
  13. May 5, 2010 #12


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    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_velocity" [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  14. May 5, 2010 #13


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    Hi starthaus

    Well, as you can see, I acknowledge that there is some support for your point of view, so it's arguably inappropriate to call it wrong. That came as a surprise to me, and I bet quite a few other PF members are irritated, too.
    However, I disagree with your (first) statement and with some of the definitions I've seen in the web. But this is a matter of semantics, where the only fault can be to use a nonstandard definition without explicitly saying so. I hereby grudgingly admit that you obviously did not use a nonstandard definition of the term.
    Still, I'd be surprised if recent textbook authors on relativity really used that definition.
    I disagree. IMHO, a resonable definition of the relative velocity of A and B would be B's velocity as measured by A, or the other way round. The definition (yes, it is a definition, not basic math) as a vector difference is theory dependent - even worse, depends on a theory known to be inaccurate for over 100 years now.
  15. May 5, 2010 #14
    Rindler in Relativity, Special, General and Cosmological. 2nd ed. Page 70 gives an equivalent vector formula and calls it, to distiguish it from relative velocity, mutual velocity and states that it is applicable equally to Newtonian and Relativistic kinematics.

    In Essential Relativity. 2nd ed. Page 36 he also calls it mutual velocity and describes it as the time rate of change of the vector connecting the two particles in question.

    Last edited: May 5, 2010
  16. May 5, 2010 #15
    The article is perfectly correct. Basic stuff, something that gets taught in 9-th grade.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  17. May 5, 2010 #16
    Yes, nothing exotic, basic physics. What's good for the Rindler is good for the goose :-)
    Last edited: May 5, 2010
  18. May 5, 2010 #17
    Thank you, it is nice to see that sometimes people admit to be rash in their judgement. I have not seen it very often in this forum.
    There is no reason to be irritated, this is perfectly basic physics (see Rindler "Relativity, Special, General and Cosmological". 2nd ed. Page 70)

    I did not use a nonstandard definition, moreover, I provided the mathematical support as to how we arrive to the expressions.

    See Rindler, exact page cited by "matheinste".

    I think you share the same confusion with the other science advisors (jtbell and Fredrik-who, BTW, reacted quite violently but without any reason) , closing speed does NOT contradict relativity.
    The closing/separation speed is the answer to the question posed in the OP. Relativistic speed composition is not the correct answer and, in fact, has nothing to do with the problem posed by the OP.
    Last edited: May 5, 2010
  19. May 5, 2010 #18

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    Give us a break! Those advisors are well aware of the definition of closing speed and how it differs from the usual definition of relative velocity.
    Really? The OP asked about the relative velocity, which is usually taken to mean the velocity of one object as measured in the frame of the other.
  20. May 5, 2010 #19
    then the answer is Option 2 (i.e. [tex]v[/tex]).
    The point is that the correct answer has nothing to do with relativistic speed composition, so jtbell's reference to the hyperphysics page is wrong.
  21. May 5, 2010 #20


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    The original poster specifically asked about "relative velocity". In relativity, the "relative velocity of A relative to B" is assumed to mean "as measured by B" unless it's explicitly clear that the assumption is wrong. This is (uv)/(1−uv/c2).

    The "relative velocity of A relative to B as measured by C" (where C is not B) is not encountered very frequently. It is (uv), where both u and v are measured by C. To avoid confusion it is often referred to as "closing velocity" or, as Rindler says, "mutual velocity".

    The Wikipedia article on Relative velocity makes no mention of relativity in the text and therefore must be assumed to be about non-relativistic Newtonian mechanics, where this issue doesn't arise. In any case, I would dispute the wording of the definition given in the opening sentence. Please remember Wikipedia can be edited by anyone who wants to and therefore cannot be relied on for authority.

    The point is, "closing velocity" (in this sense) is not the same as "relative velocity"; the question was phrased in terms of "relative velocity" and it's reasonable to assume that was what was meant unless the original poster would like to tell us otherwise.
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