The “Ehrenfest paradox“: Ehrenfest imagined a rigid cylinder set in motion from rest and rotating around its axis of symmetry. Consider an observer at rest measuring the circumference and radius of the rotating cylinder. The observer arrives at two contradictory requirements relating to the cylinder’s radius:
- Every point in the circumference of the cylinder moves with radial velocity ωR, and thus, the circumference of the cylinder should appear Lorentz contracted to a smaller value than at rest, by the usual “relativistic” factor γ: 2πR‘ < 2πR.
- The radius R’ is always perpendicular to its motion and suffers no contraction at all; it should therefore be equal to its value R: R’ = R.
Einstein wrote to Vladimir Varićak either in 1909 or in 1910 (Febuary 28): “The rotation of the rigid body is the most interesting problem currently provided by the theory of relativity, because the only thing that causes the contradiction is the Lorentz contraction”. CPAE 5, Doc. 197b.
Ehrenfest imagined a rigid cylinder gradually set into rotation (from rest) around its axis until it reaches a state of constant rotation.
In 1919 Einstein explained why this was impossible: (CPAE 9, Doc. 93)
“One must take into account that a rigid circular disk at rest would have to snap when set into rotation, because of the Lorentz shortening of the tangential fibers and the non-shortening of the radial ones. Similarly, a rigid disk in rotation (made by casting) would have to shatter as a result of the inverse changes in length if one attempts to bring it to the state of rest. If you take these facts fully into consideration, your paradox disappears”.
Assuming that the cylinder does not expand or contract, its radius stays the same. But measuring rods laid out along the circumference 2πR should be Lorentz-contracted to a smaller value than at rest, by the usual factor γ. This leads to the paradox that the rigid measuring rods would have to separate from one another due to Lorentz contraction; the discrepancy noted by Ehrenfest seems to suggest that a rotated Born rigid disk should shatter. According to special relativity an object cannot be spun up from a non-rotating state while maintaining Born rigidity, but once it has achieved a constant nonzero angular velocity it does maintain Born rigidity without violating special relativity, and then (as Einstein showed in 1912) a disk riding observer will measure a circumference.
Hence, in 1912, Einstein discussed what came to be known as the uniformly rotating disk thought experiment in general relativity. Thinking about Ehrenfest’s paradox and taking into consideration the principle of equivalence, Einstein considered a disk (already) in a state of uniform rotation observed from an inertial system.
We take a great number of small measuring rods (all equal to each other) and place them end-to-end across the diameter 2R and circumference 2πR of the uniformly rotating disk. From the point of view of a system at rest all the measuring rods on the circumference are subject to the Lorentz contraction. Since measuring rods aligned along the periphery and moving with it should appear contracted, more would fit around the circumference, which would thus measure greater than 2πR. An observer in the system at rest concludes that in the uniformly rotating disk the ratio of the circumference to the diameter is different from π:
circumference/diameter = 2π(Lorentz contracted by a factor…)/2R = π (Lorentz contracted by a factor….).
According to the equivalence principle the disk system is equivalent to a system at rest in which there exists a certain kind of static gravitational field. Einstein thus arrived at the conclusion that a system in a static gravitational field has non-Euclidean geometry.
Soon afterwards, from 1912 onwards, Einstein adopted the metric tensor as the mathematical respresentation of gravitation.
Indeed Einstein’s first mention of the rotating disk in print was in his paper dealing with the static gravitational fields of 1912; and after the 1912 paper, the rotating-disk thought experiment occurred in Einstein’s writings only in a 1916 review article on general relativity: “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity”.
He now understood that in the general theory of relativity the method of laying coordinates in the space-time continuum (in a definite manner) breaks down, and one cannot adapt coordinate systems to the four-dimensional space.
My new paper deals with Einstein’s 1912 and 1916 rotating disk problem, Einstein’s hole argument, the 1916 point coincidence argument and Mach’s principle; a combined-into-one deal (academic paper) for the readers of this blog.
Sitting: Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington and Hendrik Antoon Lorentz. Standing: Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest and Willem de Sitter. September 26, 1923.
Further reading: Ehrenfest paradox