1. Not finding help here? Sign up for a free 30min tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Teaching relativity to the general public

  1. Mar 31, 2015 #1
    In the light of this policy https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/what-is-the-pfs-policy-on-lorentz-ether-theory-and-block-universe.772224/ [Broken] , is it now considered acceptable to teach relativity by starting out with Lorentz Ether Theory (LET) and its Newtonian time which appears to be substantially easier for people to understand than the normal approach? The Internet is filled with confusing sites teaching relativity which categorically state that time is not Newtonian and which order the reader to start thinking about it in a radically different way, and yet it now seems that the more intuitive LET is considered to be the self-same theory as Einstein's, merely attaching a different philosophical interpretation to it. I have spent several years looking into this to try to find out how Lorentz's theory was disproved, and it has come as considerable surprise to me to find out that it is actually still standing, just hidden out of sight behind Einstein's version the theory.

    During the course of my research, it has become clear to me that many of the usual claims made about relativity are actually just unbacked assertions associated with philosophical interpretations which have no actual support from experiments, so it now strikes me that it is highly unethical to teach them as if they are facts, and yet that is how they are taught almost everywhere I look. Given that professional physicists are "generally content with the minimal interpretation and uninterested in philosophical interpretations", would it not make sense for everyone who introduces people to the subject to switch now to the simpler philisophical interpretation which doesn't require people to deal with a radically different nature of time (which most people never manage to get their heads around). Clearly it would still be wrong to provide only one of the philosophical interpretations or to assert that that approach is correct while failing to teach the other main interpretation, so it would be essential to teach both in order to ensure that the teaching is thorough and balanced.

    What do people think about this?

    (Please try not to turn it into an argument about which interpretation is best as an explanation of reality - this should be kept tightly focussed on education.)
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 31, 2015 #2
    I don't think it is advantageous to teach LET to students, since almost all literature covers SR, and this will just present mixed messages.

    Secondly, SR is more minimal than LET, so your argument is backwards.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2015
  4. Mar 31, 2015 #3
    I was thinking mainly about the general reader rather than a student of physics.

    I can't see how it's more minimal when it involves greater complications when teaching it and leaves many people unable to get their heads round the subject at all. Surely the aim should not be to remain shackled to existing teaching approaches which fail many people and to try to make the subject more accessible.
     
  5. Mar 31, 2015 #4
    I don't believe many students who are confused by SR will find LET any more understandable. You are assuming this to be true. On what basis?

    SR generalizes to general relativity much more easily than LET. It is unavoidable to get into geometry when it comes to general relativity, and Lorentz transformations are just coordinate rotations in a curved spacetime. It is not clear how ether behaves with gravity.
     
  6. Mar 31, 2015 #5
    I find that many people simply can't get past their own philosophical objections - they tend to reject special relativity out of hand on the basis that it makes no sense to them. They then give up on it altogether, and that's a shame when they could have learned a considerable amount through the LET approach (covering time dilation, length contraction and the headlights effect while exploring simple, rational mechanisms by which these things could occur), and that would have taken them to the point where they could then have gone on to learn SR without the same hostile incredulity about the basic facts as to how things behave in space, and then they would have found it easy to go on from there to look at GR.

    That may well be true - I haven't looked in detail at how LET handles gravity yet, but then there's a dearth of good reading material on that subject at the moment and I can only find explanations of GR.
     
  7. Mar 31, 2015 #6

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    PF's policy has nothing to do with how it is or is not considered "acceptable" to teach relavity. PF's policy is solely concerned with what topics of discussion are acceptable here on PF. The purpose of the policy is to avoid having long discussions about things that cannot be resolved in this forum.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  8. Mar 31, 2015 #7

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    I have moved this thread to the education forum since, per the OP, it is intended to be a discussion of how to teach relativity.
     
  9. Mar 31, 2015 #8
    While it makes some sense to put it in this forum, sadly it also means there are unlikely to be any more useful replies as it is now in a section which the people whose advice I was seeking are unlikely to visit. That means I may now be forced to make important decisions without getting the input of the most qualified people available here, and the consequence may be that a government will make a switch to introducing relativity in schools through the LET approach.
     
  10. Mar 31, 2015 #9
    You should be aware that Lorentz praised Einstein's work. He abandoned his own ether theory after subsequent work by Poincare and Einstein.
     
  11. Mar 31, 2015 #10

    wabbit

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I would just say that to me as a layman the most interesting thing in SR is relativity itself (of time, space, etc). I'd feel cheated if taught LET, or most likely I wouldn't have gone past the first two pages of a book that taught that at the time I was first exposed to SR, as it would have looked like a bunch of obscure formulas for specialists who need to work with high velocity situations, something I had no particular interest in. Add to that an arbitrary undetectable ether and the book would have hit the dustbin:) On the other hand SR was immediately interesting precisely because it questionned the notions of absolute time and space and explored the idea of relativity and more generally a relational view of space and time. This is just a personnal view but the reason I m interested in physics as a layman is the ideas, not the formulas.
     
  12. Mar 31, 2015 #11

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    Your OP said nothing about "making important decisions". In any case, PF is not in the business of making decision recommendations.

    Do you consider that a good thing or a bad thing? From your OP it would seem that you consider it to be a good thing since you believe it would be simpler and more intuitive.

    The other obvious question, if this is really about how SR is going to be taught in schools, is, aren't there standard textbooks in the field? For example, Taylor & Wheeler's Spacetime Physics? Is there some issue with just using those? From what you're describing, it seems like you think there are no resources out there and you're having to make up your own teaching materials. That does not seem plausible to me.
     
  13. Mar 31, 2015 #12

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    This statement, and others in your post, make me think you either have not looked at, or have not understood, standard textbooks in the field, such as the one I mentioned in my previous post. If you are trying to put together a curriculum for teaching SR in schools, you should not be using random things you find on the Internet. Physicists who are experts in this field have spent years putting together textbooks for the express purpose of teaching SR. Those are what you should be using.

    Some other good references by experts are listed here:

    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/Administrivia/booklist.html#special-relativity
     
  14. Mar 31, 2015 #13

    wabbit

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Regarding your statement that it might be unethical to teach SR as fact.

    This does sounds a bit strong to me - I don't expect a teacher at an introductory level to start with a long explanation about what the limits of the theory he is going to present are, and which parts should be regarded as interpretative etc - I'm happy to learn the basics first and get the provisos afterwards or for question time, and wouldn't complain about unethical behavior there.

    But mostly, if this is so, then teaching LET surely is just as unethical for the same reason ? Or do you feel compelled to teach both at the same time?

    And finally surely there's nothing wrong with presenting SR by saying "and it turns out that if we drop the assumption that... and intead make the assumption that ... then everything suddenly looks simpler and more natural", which is by the way more or less how I remember it being presented.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2015
  15. Mar 31, 2015 #14

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    I think it would behoove you to check into SR's experimental support (which is quite extensive) before making hasty judgments about what should or should not be taught as fact. Once again, you should not be using random sources on the Internet to decide how to teach SR. You should be using the best efforts of experts in the field.
     
  16. Mar 31, 2015 #15

    Nugatory

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    Are you saying that input (or lack thereof) from an anonymous Internet forum might be the basis for a decision to make such a switch?
     
  17. Mar 31, 2015 #16

    PeterDonis

    User Avatar
    2016 Award

    Staff: Mentor

    I find this statement a bit puzzling in view of your post #8. Are we just talking about SR for the general reader, or are we talking about actual schools and school curricula?
     
  18. Mar 31, 2015 #17

    Nugatory

    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    An example of such a claim would help us understand the sorts of things that you see as problems in need of correction.
     
  19. Mar 31, 2015 #18

    Wes Tausend

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    In my opinion, one of the best brief information sources regarding Lorentz, Einstein's SR and Poincaré, is this short, animated, 1/2 hour video called The Lorentz Transformation from Annenberg Media. Scroll down and click on #42, accept the pop-up and it should load. Similar videos have also appeared on PBS TV extra channels in my area.

    It does seem that the OP may not be familar with the logical reasoning behind SR, and this CIT produced presentation should help. In addition, all these video series are suitable for high-school and introductory college classes. The one downside is that the programs are only downloadable in the USA and Canada. I haven't viewed them all, but, again, I suspect all the other of the 52 video physics series are also quite good.

    Wes
    ...
     
  20. Mar 31, 2015 #19

    atyy

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor


    Yes. See Bell's "How to Teach Special Relativity" reprinted in https://www.amazon.com/Speakable-Unspeakable-Mechanics-Collected-philosophy/dp/0521368693. Rindler also comments https://www.amazon.com/Relativity-Special-Cosmological-Wolfgang-Rindler/dp/0198567324 (p43) that "in SR every inertial frame is as good as absolute space". From LET one can derive Minkowski spacetime, and from Minkowski spacetime one can derive LET. In classical physics, they are the same theory.

    The situation is a bit delicate in quantum mechanics, and one can see "Bell's theorem" for discussions. I believe the physics is correctly discussed in these papers, but there is a debate nonetheless about the interpretation of history.
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1402.0351
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1503.05017
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1503.06978
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1311.6852
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1503.06413
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  21. Mar 31, 2015 #20

    wabbit

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Yes but isn't that missing the point ? Who is being taught here and to what purpose ? What makes it worthwile to teach LET rather than SR ? So far the argument has been that it's easier - but is this true of the students, or is the problem with the teacher ?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook




Similar Discussions: Teaching relativity to the general public
  1. Teaching resources (Replies: 4)

  2. Ineffective teaching (Replies: 50)

  3. Teaching Assistant? (Replies: 8)

Loading...