# Why does light Ray bend in accelerating elevator but not...

Snip3r
This may be a basic question but why does light ray bend in accelerating elevator but not in one with constant velocity. I know a frame of reference with constant velocity is indistinguishable from a stationary one from the inside but I feel like like somehow the light seems to know whether it's frame is stationary or accelerating. How is that possible? Thanks

Mentor
why does light ray bend in accelerating elevator but not in one with constant velocity.

If you look at things in an inertial frame, the light ray's path is straight; it's the accelerating elevator's path that is bent. A constant velocity elevator has a path that is straight from the standpoint of an inertial frame. (From the standpoint of the accelerating elevator, the constant velocity elevator's path is also bent, just like the light ray's.)

Snip3r
the light seems to know whether it's frame is stationary or accelerating
It's not stationary vs. accelerating but inertial vs. accelerating. Light doesn't know anything. We define those frames, where light rays don't bend etc. as "inertial", and the other frames as "accelerating".

Snip3r
Snip3r
If you look at things in an inertial frame, the light ray's path is straight; it's the accelerating elevator's path that is bent.
Are you saying that the path of the accelerating elevator itself is bent from inertial standpoint?

2022 Award
The elevator is moving in a straight line through space. However it is following a curved path through spacetime.

You can see this easily for the Newtonian limit. Assume the elevator is moving in the y direction. In some inertial frame, its y position is given by ##y=y_0+ut+at^2##, where ##y_0## is its initial position, ##u## is its initial velocity and ##a## is its acceleration. The elevator is not moving in the x or z directions, so this is a straight line through space. However, remember that in relativity time is also a dimension. The elevator is moving in the t and y directions, and the relationship is a parabola, not a straight line. So this is a curve through spacetime.

The same principle holds in a full relativistic treatment, but the relationship between y and t is not so simple.

alw34 and Snip3r
_PJ_
The way I understand it is that:

Lighty travels in straight lines (null lines) since it travels with speed c, all pointsd ate shrunk to 0 distance (spatial) for its frame. Therefore, to preserve invariant speed, Time distance, for the light is stretched to infinity- a photon has "no notion of time passing" if you forgive the improper andthropomorphism.
This is evident from special relativity, and assumes flat spacetime.

For accelerated (which is equivalent under gravity) motion, General Relativity defines the geometry of spacetime. The null lines are still always straight, but just in non-euclidean geometry. It is spacetime warping that determines the perceived path of light.
Spacetime is warped by energy - the change in gravitational potential in an elevator for example, warps spacetime in such a way that the light's straight path is along the curved geometry.

At least, that is what I believe is the case.

2022 Award
Lighty travels in straight lines (null lines) since it travels with speed c, all pointsd ate shrunk to 0 distance (spatial) for its frame. Therefore, to preserve invariant speed, Time distance, for the light is stretched to infinity- a photon has "no notion of time passing" if you forgive the improper andthropomorphism.
This is not correct. Light does not have a frame. If it did, then in this frame light would (by definition) be at rest and also (by definition) be traveling at 3x108ms-1. This is paradoxical. It is meaningless to attempt to describe how time and distance would appear to a photon.

For accelerated (which is equivalent under gravity) motion, General Relativity defines the geometry of spacetime.
I gather that some older presentations claim this, but it is not correct by the modern definition of the difference between special and general relativity. The modern definition is that you only need general relativity when there is gravity present. Special relativity covers flat spacetime, which is what we have here. The accelerating elevator does not do anything to spacetime. Certainly it is reasonable to use a set of curved coordinates inside the elevator, but this is not the same as a curved spacetime.

the change in gravitational potential in an elevator for example, warps spacetime in such a way that the light's straight path is along the curved geometry.
This is not correct. There is no warping of spacetime going on here, as you can see easily by observing the path of the light ray from an inertial frame. It's straight. All that is happening is that an observer inside the elevator is using a curved coordinate system to describe flat space. Since the coordinates are curved, the straight path of the light appears curved.

Mentor
Lighty travels in straight lines (null lines)

It is true that light travels on null straight lines (geodesics), but null geodesics are not the only kinds of geodesics.

For accelerated (which is equivalent under gravity) motion, General Relativity defines the geometry of spacetime.

The geometry of spacetime is the same for both inertial and accelerated motion. Also, "accelerated" motion in the context of GR means motion under a force other than gravity; motion solely under gravity is not accelerated--objects moving solely under gravity are in free fall, weightless, with zero proper acceleration.

Snip3r
The elevator is moving in a straight line through space. However it is following a curved path through spacetime.

You can see this easily for the Newtonian limit. Assume the elevator is moving in the y direction. In some inertial frame, its y position is given by ##y=y_0+ut+at^2##, where ##y_0## is its initial position, ##u## is its initial velocity and ##a## is its acceleration. The elevator is not moving in the x or z directions, so this is a straight line through space. However, remember that in relativity time is also a dimension. The elevator is moving in the t and y directions, and the relationship is a parabola, not a straight line. So this is a curve through spacetime.

The same principle holds in a full relativistic treatment, but the relationship between y and t is not so simple.
I am not sure if I understand that. Let me clarify my assumptions. Let's say I am in an accelerating elevator (upwards) with a meter stick on two sides of them standing upright and i flash a light from the top of one to the other. I will observe the light to hit the other some where below the top. If I do the same experiment in one with constant velocity I will see it hit exactly at the top. If my assumptions are correct what's going on here? I mean let's say an observer in stationary frame watches the light ray flashed from the accelerating frame at t=0, he will see it to hit the top of his meter stick but the one in accelerating frame see it hit below his meter stick?

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I am not sure if I understand that. Let me clarify my assumptions. Let's say I am in an accelerating elevator (upwards) with a meter stick on two sides of them standing upright and i flash a light from the top of one to the other. I will observe the light to hit the other some where below the top. If I do the same experiment in one with constant velocity I will see it hit exactly at the top. If my assumptions are correct what's going on here? I mean let's say an observer in stationary frame watches the light ray flashed from the accelerating frame at t=0, he will see it to hit the top of his meter stick but the one in accelerating frame see it hit below his meter stick?
Both observers, the one in the accelerating frame and the one in the non-accelerating frame will see the light strike in the same spot( below the top of the accelerating meter stick.
Consider it this way: let's say that your elevator and the accelerating elevator are side by side and have exactly the same velocity at the moment each of you flash your light from one wall to the other from identical heights above your floors. You will see you light strike the opposite wall of your elevator at the same height above the your floor as it was fired from. You will also see the light fired in the accelerating elevator hit a point on its elevator's wall that is at the same height above your floor. This is because at the moment the light was fired its source was a rest with respect to you. After the light is fired the other elevator, due to its acceleration moves upward with respect to your own. Thus the same light hits a spot on its wall that is closer to its floor than it is to your floor. Thus from your perspective the light traveled a straight line which the accelerator changed velocity with respect to and from someone in the accelerating elevator, the light appears to take a curved path.

Last edited:
Snip3r
Staff Emeritus
Can we leave GR out of this? This is a B thread, and it's unnecessary. The question could have used a train car instead of an elevator - gravity is not an essential part of this problem.

For that matter, neither is light. You have an object moving at constant velocity in an inertial frame, and its path will be curved if you us an accelerating coordinate system.

Snip3r
Snip3r
Both observers, the one in the accelerating frame and the one in the non-accelerating frame will see the light strike in the same spot( below the top of the accelerating meter stick.
Consider it this way: let's say that your elevator and the accelerating elevator are side by side and have exactly the same velocity at the moment each of you flash your light from one wall to the other from identical heights above your floors. You will see you light strike the opposite wall of your elevator at the same height above the your floor as it was fired from. You will also see the light fired in the accelerating elevator hit a point on its elevator's wall that is at the same height above your floor. This is because at the moment the light was fired its source was a rest with respect to you. After the light is fired the other elevator, due to its acceleration moves upward with respect to your own. Thus the same light hits a spot on its wall that is closer to its floor than it is to your floor. Thus from your perspective the light traveled a straight line which the accelerator changed velocity with respect to and from someone in the accelerating elevator, the light appears to take a curved path.
Wow. That was clear as crystal. Thank you.

mviswanathan
Some clarification required: Is the accelerating elevator is similar to a stationary elevator on Earth. Does this mean that the light curving will occur in the stationary elevator on Earth?

Mentor
Some clarification required: Is the accelerating elevator is similar to a stationary elevator on Earth. Does this mean that the light curving will occur in the stationary elevator on Earth?
Yes and yes.

alw34
Ibix post #5 is one good illustration of straight line path in space being curved in spacetime.

Another example is how one two dimensional curve appears differently in space alone versus in both space and time:

"World line of a circular orbit about the Earth depicted in two spatial dimensions X and Y (the plane of the orbit) and a time dimension, usually put as the vertical axis. Note that the orbit about the Earth is a circle in space, but its worldline is a helix in spacetime." [Here the acceleration is due entirely to directional change not speed change.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theor...eneral_relativity#Kinetics_of_circular_orbits

Snip3r
Sorry to start this again but
Consider it this way: let's say that your elevator and the accelerating elevator are side by side and have exactly the same velocity at the moment each of you flash your light from one wall to the other from identical heights above your floors. You will see you light strike the opposite wall of your elevator at the same height above the your floor as it was fired from.
Let's say another elevator/earth moving down at constant velocity and the moment light is flashed, all are side by side at the same level. Now the guy in the downward elevator will expect it to hit the wall at the same height from his floor as it was fired but it will hit somewhere above that isn't it? But why? His frame is inertial as well. What am I missing here? Thanks

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Sorry to start this again but

Let's say another elevator/earth moving down at constant velocity and the moment light is flashed, all are side by side at the same level. Now the guy in the downward elevator will expect it to hit the wall at the same height from his floor as it was fired but it will hit somewhere above that isn't it? But why? His frame is inertial as well. What am I missing here? Thanks
In this case, the light fired from the source attached to his elevator will hit at the same height in his elevator, but he would not expect either of the lights emitted by the other two elevators to hit at the same height as his own light. The other two elevators and their light sources will have a upward motion with respect to him at the moment the flashes are emitted, and while he will see them traveling in a straight line, it will be at an upward angle with respect to his own, due to aberration. He will still see the lights from the other two elevators hit the same spots on those elevators as observers in those elevators do. The observer in the other inertial-frame elevator will see the light from the third elevator traveling at a downward angle. The the observer in the accelerating one will see it traveling at a downward angle with an additional curve.

Snip3r
In this case, the light fired from the source attached to his elevator will hit at the same height in his elevator, but he would not expect either of the lights emitted by the other two elevators to hit at the same height as his own light. The other two elevators and their light sources will have a upward motion with respect to him at the moment the flashes are emitted, and while he will see them traveling in a straight line, it will be at an upward angle with respect to his own, due to aberration.
This where I have trouble understanding why the guy in downward elevator can't expect the light to hit the wall at the same height from his floor. Because when the light was fired by the upward elevator, both were at same level and the photon just fired horizontally to both elevators at that instant should hit the wall at the same height as it was fired as far as the guy in downward elevator is concerned isn't it?but the photon travels at an angle though fired horizontally with respect to downward elevator.why? Thanks

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
This where I have trouble understanding why the guy in downward elevator can't expect the light to hit the wall at the same height from his floor. Because when the light was fired by the upward elevator, both were at same level and the photon just fired horizontally to both elevators at that instant should hit the wall at the same height as it was fired as far as the guy in downward elevator is concerned isn't it?but the photon travels at an angle though fired horizontally with respect to downward elevator.why? Thanks

For now just consider two elevators. Both are inertial but have a relative vertical motion with respect to each other. Each has his own light source. According to each his light travels straight across and hits the opposite wall at the same height above his floor as it was fired from. Where each elevator's own light hits its own wall is not something that can be disagreed about as far as the observers in either elevator is concerned. If elevator A says the light strikes a given point on its wall, then the observer in elevator B must agree that it strikes that same spot on elevator A's wall. But elevator A is moving with respect to elevator B. So let's say that at the moment the light is emitted in elevator A, the source is 1 meter higher than the floor of Elevator B. That means that at that same instant, the spot on A's wall where it will strike is also 1 meter above B's floor. But in the interval that it takes the light to cross Elevator A, Elevator A, along with that spot on the wall has moved with respect to Elevator B and and the spot will no longer be 1 meter above the floor of B. Thus it leaves one height with respect to B's floor and arrives at a different height above B's floor.
This also makes sense when seen from the respect of Elevator A. Its light goes straight across, and at the moment of emission is a distance from the floor of B, but in the time it takes the light to cross Elevator A, Elevator B, along with its floor has moved and thus when the light reaches the other wall, the distance between it and the floor of B has changed.

Snip3r
mviswanathan
As I understand:
1) when there is only relative velocity, say in Up/Down direction alone: With horizontal (with respect to individual elevator) light emission, the other observer will see the light being emitted at an angle to his horizontal - exactly similar to the case of a ball being thrown.
2) In case of the second elevator having acceleration, the inertial observer will notice additional curvature in the path - again same as a ball being thrown.
So, not considering the 'time' in each elevator, the effect of acceleration on the path shape of the ball and light are the same (or is it?).

Snip3r
For now just consider two elevators. Both are inertial but have a relative vertical motion with respect to each other. Each has his own light source. According to each his light travels straight across and hits the opposite wall at the same height above his floor as it was fired from. Where each elevator's own light hits its own wall is not something that can be disagreed about as far as the observers in either elevator is concerned. If elevator A says the light strikes a given point on its wall, then the observer in elevator B must agree that it strikes that same spot on elevator A's wall. But elevator A is moving with respect to elevator B. So let's say that at the moment the light is emitted in elevator A, the source is 1 meter higher than the floor of Elevator B. That means that at that same instant, the spot on A's wall where it will strike is also 1 meter above B's floor. But in the interval that it takes the light to cross Elevator A, Elevator A, along with that spot on the wall has moved with respect to Elevator B and and the spot will no longer be 1 meter above the floor of B. Thus it leaves one height with respect to B's floor and arrives at a different height above B's floor.
This also makes sense when seen from the respect of Elevator A. Its light goes straight across, and at the moment of emission is a distance from the floor of B, but in the time it takes the light to cross Elevator A, Elevator B, along with its floor has moved and thus when the light reaches the other wall, the distance between it and the floor of B has changed.
Thank you. I now understand (logically) light emitted from an elevator hits wall at the same height in that elevator and not everyone in other elevators can expect it to hit their own walls at the same height from their floor. Otherwise there will be infinite reference frames where light strikes at different heights which is not possible. Where I have trouble is imagining how it works physically. If this were some other object, I would say it will have an upward velocity component (from elevator) which when added to horizontal component will give an angle but in this case I can't do that to a photon correct? The light source of course is moving (with respect to other elevators) but it does not impart any additional velocity to a photon isn't it? May be I am complicating things but I have trouble imagining how it works since photon is a special case.

Snip3r
As I understand:
1) when there is only relative velocity, say in Up/Down direction alone: With horizontal (with respect to individual elevator) light emission, the other observer will see the light being emitted at an angle to his horizontal
Yeah I believe this is the case.
- exactly similar to the case of a ball being thrown.
But not sure if it is as simple as this because a ball will have an upward velocity from the elevator which is not the same as in the case of a photon
2) In case of the second elevator having acceleration, the inertial observer will notice additional curvature in the path - again same as a ball being thrown.
So, not considering the 'time' in each elevator, the effect of acceleration on the path shape of the ball and light are the same (or is it?).
An inertial observer will not see any curvature. It will be a straight line for him. It is the non-inertial observer that sees a curvature in the path.

Homework Helper
Gold Member
2022 Award
Thank you. I now understand (logically) light emitted from an elevator hits wall at the same height in that elevator and not everyone in other elevators can expect it to hit their own walls at the same height from their floor. Otherwise there will be infinite reference frames where light strikes at different heights which is not possible. Where I have trouble is imagining how it works physically. If this were some other object, I would say it will have an upward velocity component (from elevator) which when added to horizontal component will give an angle but in this case I can't do that to a photon correct? The light source of course is moving (with respect to other elevators) but it does not impart any additional velocity to a photon isn't it? May be I am complicating things but I have trouble imagining how it works since photon is a special case.

I believe you've missed the point of the scenario. A photon is not special. The phenomenon applies to any object or projectile that moves in a straight line, Put simply:

If you accelerate, then you will observe things moving in curves. Things that, if you were not accelerating, you would see moving in a straight line.

Imagine out in space you observe a ray of light. The light ray goes from left to right in front of you. In a straight line.

Now, you move upwards at constant velocity. The same light ray now appears to be going in straight line but down at a angle: from top left to bottom right.

Now, you accelerate upwards. The same light ray appears to move in a curve from top left to bottom right. The faster you go upwards, the more the light ray (to you) is angled down. And, if you accelerate downwards, the light ray will appear to you to curve upwards.

The light ray does the same thing in each case: moves from left to right in a straight line. But, if you accelerate, that light ray or anything else moving in a straight line will appear to you to move in a curve.

Snip3r
alw34
Some clarification required: Is the accelerating elevator is similar to a stationary elevator on Earth.
[POst #13]

This about the only subject here without an example of 'bending'.
You FEEL [proper] acceleration in both cases. THAT's how you know you are accelerating. Nothing to 'feel' in free fall.

SNIP: As a suggestion: Reread these posts and give them some considered thought. I know it takes me several readings to UNDERSTAND what is being communicated. I log ones that make particular sense to me in my notes as reminders. Of course then one must recall how the notes are filed.
The ultimate test: try explaining what you think you know to someone else.

Homework Helper
Gold Member
2022 Award
One way to see the effect of an accelerating reference frame on straight-line motion is using a rotating reference frame. The effects are perhaps more striking than for linear acceleration. Here's an illustrative video:

If you imagine the cannon is replaced by a torch shining light, then the path of the light beam would be curved in the rotating reference frame in just the same way that the path of the cannonball is curved.

Snip3r
pixel
This may be a basic question but why does light ray bend in accelerating elevator but not in one with constant velocity. I know a frame of reference with constant velocity is indistinguishable from a stationary one from the inside but I feel like like somehow the light seems to know whether it's frame is stationary or accelerating. How is that possible? Thanks

Not sure why some answers have to be more complicated than necessary -

Let's assume no gravity and you are throwing a ball horizontally in an elevator moving with constant vertical speed. When the ball is released, due to inertia it continues to have the same vertical speed it had prior to release. (The same reason a fly in your car doesn't slam into the rear window if you are moving at steady speed). Both the ball and the elevator continue to move up at the same speed and so the ball hits the opposite wall at the same height it was released.

Now repeat the experiment but with an accelerating elevator. When released, the ball continues to have the vertical speed it had at release, as above, and continues to move horizontally as seen by an observer outside the elevator. But by the time it reaches the opposite wall, the elevator has increased its speed, since it is accelerating. The ball therefore hits the opposite wall at a lower point than when it was released. In the accelerating elevator, the path appears to be curved.

Now replace the ball with a ray of light and the same argument applies.

PeroK and Snip3r
Snip3r
Thank you all. I think I kinda get it now. Thanks again

mviswanathan
[POst #13]

This about the only subject here without an example of 'bending'.
You FEEL [proper] acceleration in both cases. THAT's how you know you are accelerating. Nothing to 'feel' in free fall.

SNIP: As a suggestion: Reread these posts and give them some considered thought. I know it takes me several readings to UNDERSTAND what is being communicated. I log ones that make particular sense to me in my notes as reminders. Of course then one must recall how the notes are filed.
The ultimate test: try explaining what you think you know to someone else.

Homework Helper
Where I have trouble is imagining how it works physically. If this were some other object, I would say it will have an upward velocity component (from elevator) which when added to horizontal component will give an angle but in this case I can't do that to a photon correct? The light source of course is moving (with respect to other elevators) but it does not impart any additional velocity to a photon isn't it? May be I am complicating things but I have trouble imagining how it works since photon is a special case.
As I read this, you are comfortable with, for instance, a rifle firing a bullet "horizontally". If the rifle is on a rising elevator, the bullet will have both a horizontal and a vertical component of motion while it is in the barrel and it will retain both as it begins its flight.

But you are not comfortable with this in the context of light from coming out of an unspecified source. Part of that may have to do with the fact that the source is unspecified. So let's specify the source. There are two obvious ways to do so. We can model the beam of light as a narrow stream of short pulses. Or we can model the beam of light as a directional wave.

Take the first model -- beam of light as a sequence of pulses. For instance, we shine a flashlight through a hole. We flick the switch on briefly and a pulse of light moves from flashlight, through hole and across the elevator. From the viewpoint of the elevator, the flashlight and hole are level with one another and the pulse of light travels horizontally. From the viewpoint of an observer at rest, the flashlight was lower when the pulse was emitted and the hole was higher when the pulse passed through. The light moves diagonally upward from flashlight to hole and continues diagonally upward as it crosses the elevator.

Take the second model -- beam of light as a wave. Envision the light coming out of the flat end of a laser. The end is vertical. All observers agree on this. If the wave comes out simultaneously from top and bottom of the end, it will travel horizontally. But one of the effects of special relativity is on simultaneity. If the a rider on a rising elevator sees the crests on the wave come out simultaneously, a stationary observer will judge the same crests to have come out first on the bottom and later on the top. The resulting wave will propagate diagonally upward just fast enough so that it stays level with the end of the laser. Putting it another way, Lorentz boosts do not preserve right angles.

Last edited:
Nugatory