Q: Why does Lorentz contraction only act in the direction of motion?

Physicist: A lot of things get messed up by relativity, like when and where stuff happens, how massive things are, or how time passes.  Length contraction is an effect that literally makes things shorter in the direction of motion.  So if something whipped by you from left to right it would be thinner, but just as tall.

"Lorentz contraction" or "length contraction": Moving objects are shorter in the direction of motion. As with all relativistic effects, this mostly shows up close to the speed of light, C. It is physically real, and not an illusion or trick-of-the-light.

Which begs the question, why is it just as tall?  Why doesn’t it just shrink all over, or something?

Well, one of the things that relativity doesn’t change is whether or not an “event” actually happens.  So imagine this: you’ve got two hoops spanned by paper, and they’re flying at each other face-on.  If the paper in a hoop is torn out, then you’ve got an event that everyone will agree on.  No matter where you are or how fast you’re moving, you’ll see that the paper was torn.  The only thing relativity affects is when and where that event takes place.

So, pretend that length contraction now shrinks things in every direction.

If you assume that length contraction acts perpendicular to the direction of motion you end up with people explicitly disagreeing over events, in a paradoxical kind of way.

If you’re in the reference frame of the green hoop (from your point of view the green hoop is sitting still), then the purple hoop will be smaller and will pass through.  The green hoop’s paper will burst, and the purple’s will stay intact.  If you’re in the purple hoop’s frame, exactly the opposite happens.  And finally, if you’re exactly in between the two frames (you see each hoop approaching at the same speed), both hoops shrink by the same amount and run into each other.

What should be a single event, viewed from different perspectives, is now three different and contradictory events.  You can make the effectively identical arguments for enlarging in the perpendicular direction, and even rotation.

Perpendicular special relativistic effects lead to basic contradictions and paradoxes.

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13 Responses to Q: Why does Lorentz contraction only act in the direction of motion?

  1. Pingback: Q: Why does relativistic length contraction (Lorentz contraction) happen? « Ask a Mathematician / Ask a Physicist

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  4. J.A.Naikoo says:

    why is it that dimensions perpendicular to motion do not change?

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  8. Aahan Agrawal says:

    I reworked this example with the claim that contraction occurs ONLY IN the direction of motion. Is this the reasoning you’d use:

    1) From the green hoop’s perspective, a slimmer but as tall purple hoop HITS (as opposed to rips through) it
    2) From the purple hoop’s perspective, a slimmer but as tall green hoop HITS (as opposed to rips through) it
    3) From the center, both hoops hit each other.

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  10. Aditya says:

    Good question. A tearelvr’s speed relative to himself or herself must be zero. However, a tearelvr can measure his or her speed relative to the Sun, and that in general will be non-zero but must be less than the speed of light. However, at relativistic speeds the tearelvr observes length contraction in the direction of motion. From the tearelvr’s perspective the distance between the origin and destination becomes noticeably shorter. From this perspective, the change in distance allows the tearelvr to make the trip at effectively faster than light speed without ever measuring a speed faster than light speed.

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