Travels in Relativity Land

Mr. Tompkins, a banker with an interest in physics, takes a nap after seeing a lecture on relativity. He awakens in a strange world. Bicyclists moving past him are pinched and narrow. When he decides to go cycling himself, he notices the street he’s riding on has gotten very short. But short as it is, he doesn’t seem to be making much progress. When he remarks about this, a fellow cyclist says “What difference does it make anyway, whether we move faster or whether the street becomes shorter?”

What’s happened to poor Mr. Tompkins? Here’s what: he’s landed in a world where the speed of light is so slow that the effects of relativity are obvious and dramatic.

The story of Mr. Tompkins was written in 1940 by the physicist George Gamow. His goal was to make special relativity a little more human-scaled and approachable. The speed of light is so unimaginably fast to us that it’s hard to picture what it must be like to move at relativistic speeds. To build insight about the process, you need to domesticate it.

This is the same essential insight of a game from the MIT Game Lab.

By walking around in a world with a ridiculously slow speed of light, you experience not only the Lorentz transformation of space observed by Mr. Tompkins, but also the Doppler effect, the searchlight effect, and time dilation. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll build up some intuitive understanding of the crazy world of the very very fast.

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