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A more illuminating look at
The Light Cone


Last updated 15 Jun 1996.

click to see this Light Cone rendered in VRML
The Light Cone
(1905-present)

Recall that the future Light Cone of an event is the future-history of a light-flash of emitted at that event. It is an absolute surface for the Einstein-Minkowski Spacetime.

The Light Cone plays additional roles in Einstein's Theory of Relativity:

The fact that the speed of light is finite (that is, not infinite) is crucial to the Light Cone. At the end of this page, we consider the "Galilean limit", in which we pretend that "the speed of light is infinite". In doing so, we can understand why our common sense intuition is "Galilean" and not "Einsteinian".


Causal Structure

Causal structure provides each event in spacetime with its own notion of ordering events into "those events to its past", "those events in its present", and "those events to its future". Given an event


An example

As an example, consider again the trip on Einstein's Train.

Aristotle's Spacetime and Galileo's Spacetime

In Aristotle's Spacetime and Galileo's Spacetime, their absolute "horizontal planes of simultaneity" defined the following causal structure: For a given event, consider the particular the absolute hoizontal plane on which this event sits. Events lying above this plane (in the diagram) are "events to the future" of our given event. Events lying below this plane (in the diagram) are "events to the past" of our given event. Events lying at the boundary between future and past (that is, on its horizontal plane) are "events happening now" (that is, "simultaneous").

Einstein-Minkowski Spacetime

In Einstein-Minkowski spacetime, the causal structure is different. The Light Cone at that event divides spacetime into distinct regions: causal-future, causal-past and spacelike. Causal can be further divided into timelike and lightlike.


The Ultimate Speed Limit

The Light Cone places an upper speed limit for all objects. Only "massless" particles can travel along the cone. For example, a photon ("a particle of light") is massless. Thus, our worldlines are confined to always be within the Light Cone.


Measurement

For the interested reader, we give the details of measurement of time and space using the "RADAR method".

Equip each observer with a wristwatch and a flashlight.

Here is a spacetime diagram of a RADAR measurement: Define Interpretation of the order of operations: Spatial separation:
spatial separation = (1/2)ctroundtrip = (1/2)c(t1 + t2)
Elapsed time:
elapsed time = (1/2)(t2-t1)


The Galilean Limit

Recall that the convention in relativity is to draw a spacetime diagram in which the Light Cone appears with the sides slanted at 45 degrees away from the vertical. This has the effect of setting the relative scales between "time" and "space" measurements: 1 second, 1 light-second.

However, realize that 1 light-second is a huge distance: 300,000 km (186,000 miles). It is instructive to draw a spacetime diagram using a more practical common-sense scale. Where is the Light Cone?



The Galilean Limit
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On a common-sense scale, the Light Cone "practically coincides" with our personal plane of simultaneity. In fact, the personal planes of simultaneity of other people near us also "practically coincide". In other words, our daily experiences expose us to only a small part of our Light Cone... and thus, spacetime looks like Galileo's Spacetime to us. This explains why we have a "Galilean" intuition about the nature of time. If, someday, we are able to experience high-speeds near the speed of light, we will develop a common-sense intuition for Einstein's Theory of Relativity.


Home PREFACE PRIMEVAL SPECIAL GENERAL CONCLUSION
Dictionary Maxwell Minkowski Twins Light Cone Comments?

Rob Salgado (salgado@physics.syr.edu)
15-Jun-1996