Monday, 24 August 2009

Twin Paradox

The Twin Paradox of Einstein is an interesting thought experiment involving two twins (who are nearly exactly the same age), one of whom sets out on a journey into space and back. Because of the time dilation effect of relativity, the twin who left experiences a slowing down of time and will actually be much younger than the twin that stayed behind. The reason that this is considered a paradox is that Special Relativity seems to imply that either one can be considered at rest, with the other moving. It does, and it doesn't.
The confusion arises not because there are two equally valid inertial rest frames, but (here's the tricky part) because there are three. A lot of explanations of the twin paradox have claimed that it is necessary to include a treatment of accelerations, or involve General Relativity. Not so.
The three inertial frames are 1) at-home twin 2) the going-away twin and 3) the coming-back twin. It doesn't make any difference that the last two are physically the same twin--they still define different inertial frames.
OK, let's see: Ann stays at home and Bob rockets away at 3/5 light speed. Time dilation is 80%. Bob lets 4 years pass. Bob returns at 3/5 light speed, again taking 4 years. Ann thinks 10 years have passed, and Ann and Bob agree that Bob is two years younger.
Important question: what is the relative speed of the two Bob frames? On first glance, it would appear that one is going 3/5c in one direction and 3/5c in the other direction, so that the difference between the two frames is 6/5c! Faster than light? No, special relativity does not add speeds this way. The actual difference is only 15/17c, fast but not faster than light. Why is this important? We'll see.
Now, since special relativity lets us use either rest frame, we assume Bob is the at-home twin. Ann speeds away at 3/5c. No problem so far. But after 4 years of waiting, Bob must change his inertial frame. If we allow Ann to return, we've only restated the problem with the names switched. In the first version, Ann stayed in an inertial frame, and she must stay in an inertial frame in this version. Bob zooms off after Ann at 15/17 light speed (now we know why it was important), and of course catches up. It takes him 4 years, and he has seen 8 years since Ann left. Ann has aged 10 years. Same result. No paradox

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