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What does the Lorentz factor actually mean?

  1. Nov 5, 2012 #1
    The Lorentz factor is used ubiquitously in relativity for transformation between frames and in describing various relationships.

    Wikipedia describes this as:

    The Lorentz factor is defined as:

    γ = 1/√(1-v2/c2) = 1/√(1-β2) = dt/dτ

    v is the relative velocity between inertial reference frames,
    β is the ratio of v to the speed of light c.
    τ is the proper time for an observer (measuring time intervals in the observer's own frame),
    c is the speed of light.

    This is all great mathematically, and well understood in its applications in relativity.

    I am wondering if there is a simple and understandable explanation of what the Lorentz factor really is. I mean, is there any intuitive, physical way in which it can be explained? (for example, it is a conversion factor between such and such...)

    Any opinions on how we might be able to describe the 'real meaning' of the Lorentz factor in some intuitive and easily understandable way?
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  3. Nov 5, 2012 #2


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    It is the time-dilation factor...
    Suppose inertial observers A and B met at event O.
    For any other event Q on B's worldline,
    [tex]\gamma=\frac{\Delta t_{OQ,\ according\ to\ A}}
    {\Delta t_{OQ, \ according\ to\ B}},[/tex] as you wrote.
    In other words,
    [tex]\gamma=\frac{\mbox{number of A's ticks used to measure an elapsed time on B's worldline}}
    {\mbox{number of B's ticks used to measure an elapsed time on B's worldline}}.[/tex]

    It is analogous to the cosine of the angle between two unit vectors.
    Given the 4-velocities [itex]\hat t_A[/itex] and [itex] \hat t_B[/itex] of observers A and B,
    [tex]\gamma=\hat t_A \cdot \hat t_B =\cosh\theta_{between},[/tex] where [itex]\tanh\theta=v_{AB}[/itex] the relative-velocity.
  4. Nov 5, 2012 #3


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    My own view is that one has to abandon intuition when dealing with relativity. The idea that clocks do not record some universal time but that each one records the proper time along its own worldline is probably the most counter-intuitive concept ever introduced in physics and was met with a lot of resistance when first mooted. As for the 'real meaning', that mathematical definition is it.

    For instance the huge number of words wasted on trying to 'explain' the twins paradox could be saved if people just accepted that clocks record the time along their worldlines - which fact explains exactly why differential ageing happens. There is no simple underlying 'mechanism'. That's just the way the universe works.
  5. Nov 5, 2012 #4


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    Instead of γ = dt/dτ, I like to think of dτ/dt = 1/γ, which applies to the tick rate of a moving clock with respect to the coordinate time of an inertial reference frame. The faster a clock moves, the slower it ticks.
  6. Nov 5, 2012 #5
    It's not just about time dilation, but a simple physical SR description is as ghwellsjr says: The faster a clock moves, the slower it ticks (according to the used reference system).
    - robphy explained how it corresponds to a space-time rotation.
    - alternatively it can be described as a conversion factor between measures of duration, length, etc. according to different inertial reference systems.

    PS I just found the following presentation that could be helpful:
    http://www.astro.ufl.edu/~vicki/AST3019/Special_Relativity.ppt [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  7. Nov 5, 2012 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    What is the difference between "is" and "really is"? (And is that different from "really truly is"?
  8. Nov 5, 2012 #7


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    Isn't the number of ticks ( ticks being discrete events) invariant ?
  9. Nov 5, 2012 #8


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    I don't get the question. You know the definition of the Lorentz factor. The definition is the meaning, that's the whole reason why we make definitions.

    What is the difference between the definition and the "real meaning"? Do you somehow think that the standard definition is a facade that some conspiracy publishes and that if you know the secret handshake they will let you in and give you a different definition, the "real meaning"?
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2012
  10. Nov 5, 2012 #9


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    The number of B's ticks from O to Q along B's worldline is invariant.
    All will agree on that number.

    What I am referring to is how A and B
    make elapsed-time measurements of that duration on B's worldline
    using their own respective clocks (i.e. using [proper] time-intervals on their own respective worldlines).

    To find the elapsed time according to B from O to Q on B's worldline,
    B looks at his own clock at event Q [on his worldline] to get the elapsed-time of Q since O.

    To find the elapsed time according to A from O to Q on B's worldline,
    A looks at her own clock at the event P on her worldline which she regards as simultaneous with Q to get the elapsed-time of P (and thus of Q) since O.
  11. Nov 5, 2012 #10
    I put this together for a previous post......but ultimately Mentz's post above is the reality....we really don't know why things work as they do. [Maybe they work differently in a different universe.] Einstein came to the conclusion, correctly, that in this universe the speed of light is constant, but but space and time are NOT! So he rejected the idea of an invisible 'ether'. Apparently he used Maxwell's equations, in part, in arriving at this conclusion.

    and I saved these related comments for my own notes....I think from Wikipedia:

  12. Nov 5, 2012 #11
  13. Nov 5, 2012 #12


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    Shhhh! You promised not to mention that...
  14. Nov 5, 2012 #13
    I knew it!!! A secret 'physics society' on how stuff really works....
  15. Nov 6, 2012 #14
    Thanks for all the responses.

    I have been trying to come up with a simple yet intuitive explanation, shorn of all mathematics, for this important concept in relativity.

    My thoughts have led me to this description
    • The Lorentz factor is 'the ratio of time passage rates (or time-speeds) between two observers'.
    Is that a correct description of the Lorentz factor? Or too simplistic - i.e. does not cover all situations?

    Or, if you consider this description obvious, inane or plain stupid, I would like to know that too.

    This is really the reason for my original post - I am trying to validate my thinking about this. I didn't put the above description in my original post, to see if I could get validation or refutation of the same independently.

    I understand the mathematical explanation, but am looking for something more intuitive - i.e. something one can describe in simple English without the mathematics. Would like to know your opinion on the description I have given.

    No issues with the above statement. Still, among this counter-intuitiveness, I am trying to get an intuitive description of the 'Lorentz factor'. Let me know if you agree with the description I have given earlier in this post.

    From the SR definition perspective, completely agree. Is it the same thing as the description I have put?

    Understand. However, I am trying to see if we can describe it simply as a ratio of time rates between different observers, rather than being a conversion factor between other dimensions like length etc...

    I think the other members who responded understood my question quite well. The description at the top of this post may help clarify what I was looking for...

    There is a conspiracy. Unfortunately, it is hatched by the physical laws of the Universe, rather than any human agency. So I am not very hopeful that you will be able to help with the 'secret handshake code'... :tongue:

    Thanks for the response. Is this ultimately same as the description I provided at the top of the post?


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  16. Nov 6, 2012 #15


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    No, it is not the same. You have stated that the Lorentz factor is the ratio of time passage rates between two observers. That is wrong.

    Instead, it is the ratio of time passage rates between the coordinate time of an inertial reference frame and an observer (or a clock) that is moving in that frame. Even if you want to consider a second observer at rest in the frame, he cannot observe the Lorentz factor ratio between his own clock and that of the moving observer.

    Your definition should obviously be incorrect to you because it is symmetrical, which only means that the ratio could not ever be anything other than 1. You have to at least make one of the observers different than the other one in order to have a ratio that is greater than 1. That difference is that one of the observers is at rest in an inertial reference frame in which times at distant locations have been synchronized to his clock. We imagine that there are many synchronized coordinate clocks throughout the reference frame at every possible location. Then, the moving observer is comparing the time passage rate of his clock to the time passage rate of whichever clock he is closest to as he is moving past these imaginary coordinate clocks. He finds that those clocks are ticking faster than his own but he's not comparing his one clock to just one other coordinate clock, he's comparing his one clock to many other coordinate clocks as they appear to be flying past him.

    Does that help?
    Last edited: Nov 6, 2012
  17. Nov 6, 2012 #16
    That is incompatible with what you say next:
    If you understand it mathematically, then you know that a difference of time rates has qualitatively no effect on the Michelson-Morley experiment. :devil:
  18. Nov 6, 2012 #17


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    I think it is a fundamentally flawed effort. The Lorentz factor is [itex]\gamma = (1-v^2/c^2)^{-1/2}[/itex]. That is it. That is the definition. There is nothing more nor less than that. It is not possible to come up with a "shorn of mathematics" explanation since it is inherently a mathematical concept.

    It doesn't cover all situations. E.g. it doesn't cover length contraction or relativity of simultaneity, both of which also contain Lorentz factors. It also doesn't cover momentum, energy, mass, force, acceleration, current density, charge density, scalar potential, vector potential, or any of the many other places that it crops up where there may not be a pair of clocks that you are interested in.

    The Lorentz factor is that number. It is a number that crops up very often, and time dilation is just one of the many places where it appears, not the defining feature. You know the definition. That is the "entire actually really real mostest meaningful meaning".
  19. Nov 6, 2012 #18


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    Arindamsinha is well aware of the many situations where the Lorentz factor is used. He started his first post with:
    Nevertheless, I don't see anything wrong with his question:
    After Einstein derived the Lorentz transformation in section 3 of his 1905 paper introducing Special Relativity where he assigned β to the Lorentz factor, he went on in section 4 entitled "Physical Meaning of the Equations Obtained in Respect to Moving Rigid Bodies and Moving Clocks" to show that τ = t√(1-v2/c2) where τ is the time on the inertially moving clock and t is the coordinate time for the "stationary" frame (where both were at time zero at the origin of the frame). Using his nomenclature for the Lorentz factor, this becomes τ = t/β, or in modern terminology, τ = t/γ. As the ratio of the rates between the moving clock and the coordinate time, this becomes Δτ/Δt = 1/γ or dτ/dt = 1/γ. This is what I showed in post #4 and explained in more detail in post #15.

    Obviously, this is not the only physical meaning of the Lorentz factor, but it is one of the easiest to explain and understand, and if it was OK for Einstein to explain it this way, I don't see why we can't either.
  20. Nov 6, 2012 #19
    Yes, I can see what you are saying. I was taking the underlying assumption that one of them is moving at a certain velocity w.r.t. the coordinate clock.

    I suppose we can extend my definition a bit more and say:

    • The Lorentz factor is 'the ratio of time passage rates (or time-speeds) between two observers, one of whom is stationary and the other is inertially moving with a certain velocity'

    This includes the possibility that the velocity is 0, in which case, the Lorentz factor will be 1.

    Does that sound more like it?

    You are right, I am not saying this is the only definition (intuitive or otherwise) of the Lorentz factor, but one possible intuitive description.
  21. Nov 6, 2012 #20


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    No, that is still not right.

    It's between one observer and one reference frame.

    Please go back and read my posts.
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