Relativity is a Matter of Perspective

There’s something that seems soft or overgenerous in saying that everyone’s perspective is valid.

It is, I suspect, the kind of thing that everyone feels they’re supposed to say but which nobody actually believes. Perhaps everyone should get a trophy for participation, but at the end of the day, there is only one Truth. There is still Right and Wrong.

And while I am as struck as anyone by the impulse to define an absolute Truth, the answer is clearly elusive. And, indeed, relative.

In physics terms, for example, the relationship between an observer and an object is critical.

Existence doesn’t happen in vacuum, after all, and understanding Relativity is all about understanding how objects appear relative to each other. This, incidentally, is totally different from the Observer Effect, which demonstrates that observing an object can cause it to change.

If one person is moving near the speed of light and the another person is moving at so-called “normal” speeds, they will see some strange things occurring.

Time will appear to move at different speeds for each party. The faster moving object will appear shorter from the perspective of the slower moving observer.

The beauty about this effect from is that it is far more complex than a trick of the eye. Indeed, you can see the effect foundationally in the mathematics of the universe.

The equation for length contraction, for example, looks like this: L is the observed length, L0 is the length at rest, v is the relative velocity between the observer and object, and c is the speed of light.

What you can see here is that there is nothing special about the speed of light per se. That is, there’s not some “normal world” and some crazy “speed of light” world.

Rather, there is a continuous change in length which is entirely dependent on the relative velocity, v.

When an object is moving at the same velocity as an observer, v=0, then the observed length, L, converges to the length at rest, L0. When an object is moving at the speed of light relative to a stationary observer, v=c, then the observed length converges to 0.

It is nonsensical to ask the object’s True length.

There is no such thing as its True length. Only the length as measured by an outside observer moving relative to the object at velocity v.

All lengths, 0 to L0 are equally True.

For every day purposes, we may choose to declare an object’s rest length as its True length. But that is essentially an arbitrary decision. It is the same as declaring that an object’s True length is the length I most typically observe it to be – even if someone else might typically observe a different length.

And here we get back to the challenge of different perspectives in a social science context.

If my observations tell me that one thing is True, and your observations tell you that something else is True, there is nothing at all soft about declaring both perspectives equally valid.

Just like the length of an object, the truth is relative.

Of course, just because the length of an object is variable, doesn’t mean there are no constants to grab hold of.

The speed of light, c, is a constant (in a vacuum) as you may well know.

But c is not a just constant because there is something special about light. It’s not just that there is a maximum speed at which a mass-less object can hurl through space.

Rather, there is a fixed ratio between distance and time. What happens to one effects the other.

If you and I are moving a different speeds and observing some third object, we may see different things. We may observe the object to have different lengths or see time to be passing differently.

But we can understand the difference in perspectives. We can discover the underlying constant and definite the continuum on which both our realities are equally True.


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