Special Relativity, Simply Explained

By Sean Carroll | November 26, 2010 8:29 am

Here’s how it starts. Click over to Abstruse Goose to see the exciting conclusion.


Message to science journalists: if this actually happened, it would be pretty awesome.

  • http://davemosher.com Dave Mosher

    So, I’m working on this story about special relativity and I’d love to know if you have time for an interview… 😉

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I have to come up with a good aliens-with-lasers thought experiment first.

  • kodie

    I don’t know what’s the more outlandish part of that headline: “Respected scientist” or the “extraordinary claim”.

  • goldy

    Wait, so you WANT to never again be taken seriously? I guess you can just trade APS conferences for Comic-Con.

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  • timur


  • Eugene

    hey Sean, didn’t this happened to you already?

  • Eugene

    And you shouldn’t miss this classic too : http://abstrusegoose.com/319

  • Sili

    You do realise that’s the other dr Carroll, right?

  • spyder

    Rupert and Roger make a killing on this, thus proving that News Corp can twist any fictitious story into a fact-based accounting, that at least one third of the population will believe.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I suppose this is better than Dr. Evil’s “sharks with frickin lasers”

  • Alan in Upstate NY

    I was quite amazed to find this statement in Conservapedia…

    “Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world.”

    Such comments were expected regarding evolution and global warming, but relativity?!

    Clear skies, Alan

  • psmith

    Off topic, but I would dearly like to hear your comments about the significance of this article

  • Charlie

    Clears it up for me. (Wow, aliens with lasers.)

  • réalta fuar

    Anyone who would think that they can explain special relativity to a newspaper reporter in 10 minutes is likely to get exactly what they deserve.

  • Shawn

    When your name shows up in xcdc is when you know you’ve made it in life.

  • Gary M

    Um, no frame of reference owns ultimate reality.

    You folks snigger as if you do, and own SR too.


  • Gary M

    Funny you need it to be explained.


    Just another thought experiment.


  • Flint

    I’d never really realized that, since lasers propagate at the speed of light, they are a much better way of attacking distant star systems than almost any other weapon. We probably should be worried about this.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    One potential problem with this thought experiment: If an alien member of a civilization advanced enough to send a spacecraft traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light to our solar system to fire a laser directly at Earth exists, it may be indirect evidence that Special Relativity is wrong.

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  • Matt B.

    I find once you throw time skewing in, special relativity is pretty easy to get. Trouble is, length contraction and time dilation get all the glory.

  • Soto

    Sadly, this kind of twisting of a scientific explanation, one that specifically uses a hypothetical, by the media is already happening. See, for example: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/12/coldest-winter-in-1000-years-cometh-–-not/

    So, I guess I can’t really laugh at this cartoon.

  • Anonymous37

    This reminds me of a funny story: back when I was in graduate school, Joe Taylor won the Nobel Prize in physics, and journalists descended upon the department. So Taylor gave a press conference in the main auditorium, and a number of the graduate students attended as well.

    Taylor explained in fairly simple terms the experimental observations, what it proved about general relativity, and so on. When he finished, one of the reporters asked, “Can you explain that again in laymen’s terms?” Taylor replied, “I thought I just did.”

    The graduate students and professors laughed. The reporters, on the other hand, did not think that was funny at all. Which, of course, made it that much more hilarious.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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