American Scientist 96 (1) (2008)

Jill North
Rutgers University - New Brunswick
Max Jammer’s recent book, Concepts of Simultaneity: From Antiquity to Einstein and Beyond, traces the history of our ideas on simultaneity as they evolved alongside sweeping changes in our understanding of physics. One of the interesting lessons of the book is that, even as our physical theories have become increasingly successful, the question of the proper understanding or interpretation of those theories remains extremely puzzling. The central issue is this: Is the simultaneity of events a real feature of the world? Or does it depend on the particular choice of reference frame, with any such frame as good as any other? In ancient times, Jammer suggests, most people took the notion of simultaneity for granted: Two events were simultaneous if they happened at the same time. Simultaneity was considered an objective feature of the world. This simple idea appeared con rmed by classical Newtonian mechanics. In Newtonian physics different inertial reference frames (ones that move at a constant velocity relative to one another) are equally good (the laws of motion hold in all of them), even though some attributes of an object, say velocity or momentum, differ from one reference frame to another. However, some features, such as simultaneity, hold in all allowable reference frames and are thus frame independent and in some sense more objective. But what if two events whose simultaneity is in question took place far from each other? How would you know whether they were simultaneous? One solution (available for the last few centuries anyway) is for the observers of each event to look at their (previously synchronized) clocks. The question then becomes, How can clocks that are distant from one..
Keywords simultaneity  spacetime  inertial frames
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