On the Intrinsically Ambiguous Nature of Space-Time Diagrams

Elie During


When the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski first introduced the space-time diagrams that came to be associated with his name, the idea of picturing motion by geometric means, holding time as a fourth dimension of space, was hardly new. But the pictorial device invented by Minkowski was tailor-made for a peculiar variety of space-time: the one imposed by the kinematics of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, with its unified, non-Euclidean underlying geometric structure. By plo tting two or more reference frames in relative motion on the same picture, Minkowski managed to exhibit the geometric basis of such relativistic phenomena as time dilation, length contraction or the dislocation of simultaneity. These disconcerting effects were shown to result from arbitrary projections within four-dimensional space-time. In that respect, Minkowski diagrams are fundamentally different from ordinary space-time graphs. The best way to understand their specificity is to realize how productively ambiguous they are.

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