“Moving clocks do not run slow” – Part 1

Last year I wrote an article for the AIP (Australian Institute of Physics) magazine Australian Physics – Volume 56, Issue 1. The article is about special relativity (SR) and is titled Moving clocks do not run slow (Important note: the article is about pedagogy, i.e. how we teach SR, and it’s not claiming there’s anything wrong with SR!)

Apparently, historically, there’s been relatively little feedback on articles in Australian Physics but this article got quite a bit. So I want to say thank you to everyone who has shown an interest in the article.

To anyone who has an interest in SR, and hasn’t read the article, “Go read it!”

However, because Australian Physics doesn’t have a letters page, they posted some readers comments online next to the article. Unfortunately, the AIP has not permitted me to post responses on their website to those readers’ comments (as is common practice in a letters page). I know, respect and like the editors of the magazine but I disagree with this decision not to post my responses (more likely a decision of the AIP committee rather than the editors themselves). It’s particularly frustrating as there’s interesting discussions to be had and, in relation to the content of the comments, some basic physics that needs correcting.

It’s not surprising that there’s some misunderstanding in relation to the article, it tends to happen with any article, especially one that was deliberately titled to be provocative. I was limited by the word count and also by trying to satisfy the needs of a broad readership. Also, of course, once one receives comments one thinks of many different ways one could have written the article… though no doubt those other approaches would just have elicited different comments!

I’ve luckily had the chance to talk to some people in person and clarify any misunderstandings they had, but it’s impossible to get around to everyone. So as the article’s available online I thought I’d take the opportunity to spruik it, but I’ll also use this blog to provide responses to the readers’ comments on the AIP website – unfortunately I’ve not had the chance to meet any of them in person.

I want to say a particular thanks to those who sent written comments into the AIP (including any which have not been put up on the AIP website). It’s difficult and time consuming to put one’s thoughts down “on paper” and, however carefully we write, what we mean may not be the meaning that someone else takes from what we’ve written. So my responses to the comments can only be based on my attempt to gauge what the commenters were trying to say, and to respond to that.

The commenters, as others, are free to comment on this blog and clarify what they’ve said etc. and comment further on the article, or my responses.

As well as responding to the comments on the AIP website, I’ll write some further posts expanding on the topics in the article.

Some, related posts I plan to write include:

  • I gave a talk on the same topic in December at the 2019 AIP Summer Meeting. The presentation took a different approach to the article, and so I think it’s worth adding to the conversation. Also interesting, in relation to that talk, was that someone in the audience said they wouldn’t ever use the phrase “moving clocks run slow” to describe the effects of special relativity because they’d  never heard of the phrase being used! From my point of view, that’s good news, but one only has to google to see that many people do, unfortunately, use this phrase.
  • There was an article in Physics World called “The invisibility of length contraction”. I contacted them to do a “sister article” titled “The invisibility of time dilation” which is related to the Physics World article as well as my AIP article. However, they were not able to fit it into their planned schedule of articles, so I’ll post the article here.
  • Possibly others that I can’t think of right now.

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