Rotating Question Curious About Astronomy? Ask an Astronomer

Why can't relative velocities add up to more than the speed of light?

I'm an adult (at least age wise) and I'm trying to understand why nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

What would happen, if let's say, you're traveling through space in a bus five miles long moving at one mile less than the speed of light. From the back of the bus you start running down the aisle at two miles an hour. In relation to the bus, your going two miles an hour, but in relation to anything outside the bus, wouldn't you now be traveling at one mile faster than the speed of light? And if so, what would things look like out the window?

This is a good question and the answer is that the rules for adding up relative velocities change in special relativity. In "common-sense" physics (ie. the realm that we're used to deal with), if the bus is moving at speed v and a person in it is moving at speed u relative to the bus (and in the same direction) then the persons speed relative to the ground is just

w = u+v.

This is called the Galillean transformation. In the theory of special relativity though, the speed relative to the ground becomes

w = (u + v)/(u*v/c*c + 1)

(now a Lorenztian transformation) so you can see that even if u=c and v=c then w = c! You can't go faster than c relative to anything! If u and v are both very small compared to c, then the factor u*v/c*c becomes extremely small, in fact so small that we don't notice it at speeds we're used to and w = u + v works just fine.

See here for a neat little web page calculator explaining this and some other equations in special relativity more. Try putting in numbers close to c for the velocities, to check that the sum is never more than c. Also try putting in small velocities (compared to c) and compare the answer to just straight addition.

July 2002, Karen Masters (more by Karen Masters) (Like this Answer)

Still Curious?

Get More 'Curious?' with Our New PODCAST:

Related questions:

More questions about The Theory of Relativity: Previous | Next

How to ask a question:

If you have a follow-up question concerning the above subject, submit it here. If you have a question about another area of astronomy, find the topic you're interested in from the archive on our site menu, or go here for help.

Table 'curious.Referrers' doesn't existTable 'curious.Referrers' doesn't exist

This page has been accessed 23747 times since July 26, 2002.
Last modified: November 6, 2002 10:25:01 AM

Legal questions? See our copyright, disclaimer and privacy policy.
Ask an Astronomer is hosted by the Astronomy Department at Cornell University and is produced with PHP and MySQL.

Warning: Your browser is misbehaving! This page might look ugly. (Details)