A Real Lorentz-FitzGerald Contraction

Foundations of Physics 38 (2):191-199 (2008)
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Abstract

Many condensed matter systems are such that their collective excitations at low energies can be described by fields satisfying equations of motion formally indistinguishable from those of relativistic field theory. The finite speed of propagation of the disturbances in the effective fields (in the simplest models, the speed of sound) plays here the role of the speed of light in fundamental physics. However, these apparently relativistic fields are immersed in an external Newtonian world (the condensed matter system itself and the laboratory can be considered Newtonian, since all the velocities involved are much smaller than the velocity of light) which provides a privileged coordinate system and therefore seems to destroy the possibility of having a perfectly defined relativistic emergent world. In this essay we ask ourselves the following question: In a homogeneous condensed matter medium, is there a way for internal observers, dealing exclusively with the low-energy collective phenomena, to detect their state of uniform motion with respect to the medium? By proposing a thought experiment based on the construction of a Michelson-Morley interferometer made of quasi-particles, we show that a real Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction takes place, so that internal observers are unable to find out anything about their ‘absolute’ state of motion. Therefore, we also show that an effective but perfectly defined relativistic world can emerge in a fishbowl world situated inside a Newtonian (laboratory) system. This leads us to reflect on the various levels of description in physics, in particular regarding the quest towards a theory of quantum gravity

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