“What would you see if you were riding a beam of light?” This thought experiment, which Einstein reports to have “conducted” at the age of 16,1 of course has no sensible answer: as Einstein published a decade later, you could never reach the speed of light.2 But it does make sense to ask what you would see if you were traveling close to the speed of light, and one of the first physicists to embark on this effort was George Gamow in his Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland.3 His protagonist is speeding on a bicycle through a city where the speed of light is lower, thus ingeniously taking advantage of the fact that special relativity scales with v/c: for it to kick in, you either have to move very fast (in rather unfamiliar territory), or light has to be slow (in which case special relativity kicks in at everyday velocities in everyday situations). Gamow provides drawings of what Mr. Tompkins and people at the curb would see in this slow-light city, at least, what they would see if one only took into account two of the effects: length contraction and time dilation.4
Seeing and Experiencing Relativity — A New Tool for Teaching?
Gerd Kortemeyer, Jordan Fish, Jesse Hacker, Justin Kienle, Alexander Kobylarek, Michael Sigler, Bert Wierenga, Ryan Cheu, Ebae Kim, Zach Sherin, Sonny Sidhu, Philip Tan; Seeing and Experiencing Relativity — A New Tool for Teaching?. Phys. Teach. 1 November 2013; 51 (8): 460–461. https://doi.org/10.1119/1.4824935
Download citation file: