Einstein's Theory of Relativity
Chapter 2 Lorentz Transformations

Chapter 2: The Lorentz Transformations

In the previous chapter, we laid the conceptual groundwork for the special theory of relativity by introducing the principle of relativity and the constancy of the speed of light. We saw how these two postulates, when taken together, lead to some surprising conclusions about the nature of space and time. In particular, we found that the concept of simultaneity is relative, and that moving clocks run slow compared to stationary ones.

However, we have not yet developed the mathematical machinery needed to quantitatively describe these effects. In this chapter, we will introduce the Lorentz transformations - the mathematical heart of special relativity. These transformations allow us to relate the space and time coordinates of events between different inertial reference frames. We will derive the Lorentz transformations from Einstein's postulates, explore their consequences, and see how they lead to a profound reformulation of our notions of space and time.

The Need for a New Transformation

In classical Newtonian physics, the relationship between the coordinates of two inertial frames is given by the Galilean transformations. If we have two frames S and S', with S' moving at a velocity v relative to S along the x-axis, then the Galilean transformations state:

x' = x - vt y' = y z' = z t' = t

Here (x, y, z, t) are the coordinates of an event in frame S, and (x', y', z', t') are the coordinates of the same event in S'. These transformations embody the classical notions of absolute space and time. They imply that time is the same in all reference frames (t' = t), and that lengths are also invariant between frames.

However, the Galilean transformations are incompatible with the constancy of the speed of light. If light travels at speed c in frame S, then according to the Galilean velocity addition law, it should travel at speed c-v in S'. But this violates Einstein's second postulate, which states that the speed of light is the same in all inertial frames.

To resolve this contradiction, we need a new set of transformations that leave the speed of light invariant. These are the Lorentz transformations.

Derivation of the Lorentz Transformations

To derive the Lorentz transformations, let's consider a light pulse emitted at the origin (x=0, t=0) of frame S. In frame S, the propagation of this pulse is described by the equation:

x^2 + y^2 + z^2 = c^2t^2

This is just the Pythagorean theorem in three spatial dimensions plus the time dimension, with the speed of light c converting between space and time units.

Now let's look at the same light pulse from the perspective of frame S'. The principle of relativity demands that the pulse must also satisfy the wave equation in S':

x'^2 + y'^2 + z'^2 = c^2t'^2

Our task is to find a transformation between the unprimed and primed coordinates such that this invariance is maintained. The simplest such transformation is:

x' = γ(x - vt) y' = y z' = z t' = γ(t - vx/c^2)

where γ = 1/√(1 - v^2/c^2) is the Lorentz factor. These are the Lorentz transformations. You can verify that if you plug these expressions into the primed wave equation, you recover the unprimed equation, thus demonstrating the invariance of the speed of light.

A few key points about the Lorentz transformations:

  1. They reduce to the Galilean transformations in the limit v << c, i.e., when the relative velocity is much less than the speed of light. In this case, γ ≈ 1.

  2. They are not just a rotation in 4D spacetime. The mixing of space and time coordinates (x' depends on t, t' depends on x) is a novel feature with profound consequences.

  3. They form a group under composition, meaning that a sequence of Lorentz transformations is equivalent to a single Lorentz transformation. This group structure underlies the self-consistency of special relativity.

Consequences of the Lorentz Transformations

The Lorentz transformations lead to a number of striking effects that defy classical intuition. Let's explore a few of these consequences.

Time Dilation

Consider a clock at rest in frame S'. The clock ticks events are characterized by ∆x' = 0, i.e., they occur at the same spatial location in S'. The time between ticks in S' is ∆t'. What is the time between these same ticks in frame S?

Using the Lorentz transformations, we can relate the time intervals:

∆t = γ∆t'

Since γ > 1, this implies that ∆t > ∆t'. In other words, the moving clock appears to run slow by a factor of γ compared to a stationary clock. This is the famous time dilation effect of special relativity.

It's important to stress that this is not just an illusion due to signal propagation times or clock mechanisms. Time itself is literally flowing at different rates for the moving and stationary observers. Each frame's perception of time is equally valid.

Length Contraction

Now consider a rod at rest in S', aligned along the x'-axis. The rod has proper length L' in S', meaning that the coordinates of its endpoints satisfy ∆x' = L'. What is the length of the rod as measured in S?

To find this, we must measure the coordinates of the rod's endpoints simultaneously in S. Setting ∆t = 0 in the Lorentz transformations, we find:

∆x = ∆x'/γ = L'/γ

Since γ > 1, this implies that L < L'. The moving rod is contracted along its direction of motion by a factor of γ. This is the phenomenon of Lorentz contraction.

Again, this is not just a matter of perspective or measurement. The rod really is shorter in its moving frame. If the rod is accelerated to relativistic speeds, it will physically contract.

Relativity of Simultaneity

Perhaps the most counterintuitive consequence of the Lorentz transformations is the relativity of simultaneity. Events that are simultaneous in one frame are generally not simultaneous in another.

Consider two events, A and B, that are simultaneous in S' and separated by a distance ∆x'. In S', we have:

t'_A = t'_B x'_B - x'_A = ∆x'

Using the Lorentz transformations, we can find the time difference between these events in S:

t_B - t_A = -γv∆x'/c^2

Unless ∆x' = 0 (meaning the events occur at the same spatial location in S'), this time difference is nonzero. Events A and B are not simultaneous in S.

This shatters the Newtonian notion of absolute simultaneity. Whether two events are simultaneous or not depends on the reference frame. There is no universally agreed upon "now" that slices through spacetime.

The Lorentz Transformations and Spacetime

The Lorentz transformations reveal a deep connection between space and time. In the classical worldview, space and time are separate and absolute entities. But in special relativity, they are intimately linked and relative.

This connection is made explicit in the concept of spacetime, introduced by Hermann Minkowski. Spacetime is the 4D manifold formed by the union of 3D space and 1D time. Events are points in this 4D spacetime, characterized by four coordinates (t, x, y, z).

In this view, the Lorentz transformations are rotations in 4D spacetime. Just as a 3D rotation mixes x, y, and z coordinates while preserving distances, a Lorentz transformation mixes t, x, y, and z while preserving the spacetime interval:

∆s^2 = -c^2∆t^2 + ∆x^2 + ∆y^2 + ∆z^2

This interval, which is a kind of 4D "distance," is invariant under Lorentz transformations. It is the fundamental geometrical object of special relativity.

In this spacetime picture, many of the seemingly paradoxical effects of relativity become intuitive. For example, the relativity of simultaneity is simply a consequence of the fact that different observers slice spacetime along different hyperplanes of constant time.

The Lorentz transformations, then, are more than just a mathematical tool for converting between reference frames. They represent a profound shift in our understanding of the nature of space and time. They reveal that space and time are not the immutable, absolute entities of classical physics, but are instead malleable and relative, woven together into the fabric of spacetime.


The Lorentz transformations are the mathematical embodiment of Einstein's revolutionary insights into the nature of space and time. Derived from the principle of relativity and the constancy of the speed of light, they provide the framework for translating physical descriptions between inertial frames.

But their significance goes beyond mere coordinate conversions. The Lorentz transformations reveal a world where time dilates, lengths contract, and simultaneity is relative. They unify space and time into a 4D spacetime continuum, where the distinction between them is blurred.

In the next chapter, we will explore further consequences of the Lorentz transformations, including the famous twin paradox and the equivalence of mass and energy. We will see how these transformations, and the spacetime view they inspire, lead us to a deeper understanding of the physical universe.

As we continue our journey through special relativity, it's important to keep in mind that these bizarre effects - time dilation, length contraction, relativity of simultaneity - are not just theoretical curiosities. They are real phenomena, confirmed by countless experiments, from particle accelerators to GPS satellites. They are the inevitable consequences of the deep structure of spacetime, as encoded in the Lorentz transformations.