Back to Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity

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In this course we will seek to “understand Einstein,” especially focusing on the special theory of relativity that Albert Einstein, as a twenty-six year old patent clerk, introduced in his “miracle year” of 1905. Our goal will be to go behind the myth-making and beyond the popularized presentations of relativity in order to gain a deeper understanding of both Einstein the person and the concepts, predictions, and strange paradoxes of his theory. Some of the questions we will address include: How did Einstein come up with his ideas? What was the nature of his genius? What is the meaning of relativity? What’s “special” about the special theory of relativity? Why did the theory initially seem to be dead on arrival? What does it mean to say that time is the “fourth dimension”? Can time actually run more slowly for one person than another, and the size of things change depending on their velocity? Is time travel possible, and if so, how? Why can’t things travel faster than the speed of light? Is it possible to travel to the center of the galaxy and return in one lifetime? Is there any evidence that definitively confirms the theory, or is it mainly speculation? Why didn’t Einstein win the Nobel Prize for the theory of relativity?
About the instructor: Dr. Larry Lagerstrom is the Director of Academic Programs at Stanford University’s Center for Professional Development, which offers graduate certificates in subjects such as artificial intelligence, cyber security, data mining, nanotechnology, innovation, and management science. He holds degrees in physics, mathematics, and the history of science, has published a book and a TED Ed video on "Young Einstein: From the Doxerl Affair to the Miracle Year," and has had over 30,000 students worldwide enroll in his online course on the special theory of relativity (this course!)....

AP

Aug 11, 2020

It was wonderful experience to know the special theory of relativity from Larry, who has presented the course in very simple way to understand. Thanks a lot to Larry for providing such a good session.

JJ

Mar 21, 2020

Thanks for helping me understand the Special Theory of Relativity, covered a lot of ground but repeated it so it really could sink in. Like your style and want to thank you for your assistance. Thanks

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By Ken I

•Dec 12, 2019

Outstanding course and instructor. I really appreciate that this is made available for free. This class was exactly what I was looking for....more into depth than YouTube explanations of relativity, but not as deep as general relativity with advanced math. If you know some algebra and are willing to put your brain to work, you'll like this class. Yes, I agree with some others that the instructor was repetitive at times, but many students with less math background I'm sure appreciated that. I just skipped forward a little if needed. There was plenty of meat and extra math problems if you wanted it to be more challenging. More than anything, i'd like to thank Stanford and the professor for taking the time to create and share this class.

By Anand S

•Oct 12, 2018

Loved this course!

This was my first course through Coursera that I completed in full :) and I'm glad I did it. I always was a bit interested in Astrophysics and even had LOTS of books on my shelf in the hope that someday I would start reading and learning - all by myself. But I couldn't gather enough motivation - and so it never really worked out. But after taking up the course and going through the different topics - I feel that I can begin a more serious approach to studying Relativity and can tackle some of the standard books on the subject.

I don't have a background in Physics, but that didn't prove to be a problem while going through the course. I was able to complete each week's contents by spending around 45mts-an hr each day. Was also maintaining my own set of notes - I'm sure I might be looking at them again someday when I'm exploring the subject bit more in depth. The quizzes were somewhat easier that I expected and I'm happy I was able to get some of my doubts clarified promptly through the forums.

My only concern was that a) I would have liked the course to be bit more technical/mathematical and b) I wish I had completed the 'optional problems' too at the end of each week :). But these are not really so critical as it was an introductory course and I didn't have any basic understanding of Relativity prior to this.

Overall I'm happy to have completed my first course , having gained an insight into Einstein's work and taken my first baby steps towards understanding Astrophysics/Cosmology ! Looking forward to see some more related/advanced courses in the same area. Thanks to the Faculty, all the timely help on the Forums & Coursera!

P.S.

Can't wait to show-off my Certificate to everyone !!!

Regards

Anand

By Joy S

•Nov 18, 2018

This professor says he will make haste slowly, and he does. I have typically face difficulties in understanding physics, math, and this type of subject but I was able to pass this course with a respectable grade because of this professor.

By Sahib S

•Dec 9, 2019

Almost anyone can learn about the special theory of relativity from these lectures. I actually can't believe that I studied from a professor who teaches in the USA and in so simple way. I am grateful.

By John

•Mar 22, 2020

Thanks for helping me understand the Special Theory of Relativity, covered a lot of ground but repeated it so it really could sink in. Like your style and want to thank you for your assistance. Thanks

By Ian H

•Nov 5, 2019

Since such online courses became available some years ago, I have followed a number of them on different subjects and on different platforms. This course is simply outstanding. It is hard to imagine how Dr Lagerstrom's construction of the course might be improved upon.

Starting from some very basic principles and with the help of a little simple school algebra, step by step he progressively lays out for us some of the counter-intuitive yet fundamental rules by which the universe functions. Each step is in itself simple, logical, and well within the scope of the most average of learners. But upon course completion, since the student has followed the entire process step by step from basic principles, they emerge with a depth of understanding of apparently complex matters that prove not to be impenetrable at all.

Dr Lagerstrom has managed to show that nobody needs to be afraid of this subject, or be concerned that it is somehow beyond their understanding. Not only is special relativity comprehensible, it may be deeply understood, starting from a few basic tenets, and that is a form of understanding that goes far beyond merely a grasp of the principles of a theory.

By David B

•Dec 18, 2019

I really enjoyed this course, but you need to have appropriate expectations of it. As many reviewers have noted, it does move slowly and the lectures are fairly repetitive, but the lecturer has an excellent command of the material and his explanations are very clear. You will learn time dilation, length contraction, "leading clocks lag", the Lorentz transformation and a fair amount about Einstein's life. It also touches on E=mc^2 and some basic results of general relativity. You will not learn anything about relativistic momentum or electrodynamics, and relativistic energy is just mentioned. The course uses algebra, but no calculus. You will not see four-vectors or tensors.

By Gina H

•Oct 9, 2019

I am currently an A level student wanted to study physics for university, I have completed this course and was well explained with a mixture of maths with the concepts explained. It helped a lot with my personal statement and I realised this is an area that I took particular interest within the subject. It is suitable for beginners new to this theory, and will recommend if you want to know more about time dilation.

By Arup P

•Aug 12, 2020

It was wonderful experience to know the special theory of relativity from Larry, who has presented the course in very simple way to understand. Thanks a lot to Larry for providing such a good session.

By Benny H

•Jun 23, 2017

This course is very comprehensive and well prepared material for understanding the Special Theory of Relativity. Larry (the instructor) is very expert and has broad knowledge in explaining the course.

By Alan H

•Feb 16, 2019

Professor Lagerstrom went out of his way to include a wide range of understandings in this ride to understanding relativity and its' non-symmetric duality. (I always thought relativity was the same for the one in motion as the one at rest... not true! Time dilation happens differently.) This and many other wonderful revelations were opened for me without the need to perform the math, altho... I made myself go back and do a sheet of Algebra "brush up" and then re-attacked the course by working all the math, so I really had two tangents of learning here. If I was ever trapped in a Spaceship and had to be on time for dinner on Earth, I'd trust Larry to tell me how fast to go, implicitly. My new understanding of "frames of reference", relative length, leading clocks, time dilation and temporal plotting has all but destroyed the science behind all of my favorite television shows... but I can calculate the Lorentz factor and truly can mentally conceptualize the effects of near light movement and it has made me believe that black holes exist as a continual part of the Big Bang, as time restarts when you reach the center (and nearly stops on the way). I also couldn't understand how a photon could last all the way to Earth, until I learned of the muon! I couldn't picture this in my mind, until I took this course. Thank You!

By Sayan s

•Jun 12, 2018

This course is greatly set up by professor LARRY RANDLES LAGERSTROM in such a way that even a high school student can understand these topics in our country.I request the Coursera community to appoint this instructor again for making a course on GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY by taking enough time as required .I know General theory of relativity takes a lot of mathematical background but an attempt should be taken to start from the roots to make the learners get through the topics.Separate mathematics teachers along with professor LARRY should collaborate to make this happen.The already available course on General relativity requires way too pre maths to start .Why not take 2 or 3 years to develop that skill right here by Coursera such that home schooled students can learn the entire course online up here.AS FOR THIS COURSE IT WAS GREAT AND LARRY SIR HAS MOTIVATED ME A LOT TO CONTINUE WORKING ON THIS FROM HERE ON.THANK YOU.

By Ann E E

•Jun 24, 2020

For me, Dr. Lagerstrom was a gifted teacher, who understands both his material and the mind of his student, teaching with great empathy, patience and encouragement.

He taught me the basics of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, something I thought myself no longer capable of learning because I am a 71-year-old social science/humanities major whose last math was freshman algebra.

I thank him for the gift of the 2 postulates, the Lorentz factor and Transformation, time dilation, length contraction, leading clocks lag/relativity of simultaneity, invariant interval, space time diagrams with their lines of simultaneity....just so much more than I thought possible.

Thank you for this generous gift!

P.S. I completed this course in one month: May 24 to June 24, 2020, while "staying home" during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

By M.C. D D

•Jun 23, 2020

I wish I could have given more stars. This is the best course I have taken since graduate (medical) school. The instructor was fabulous.

I hated, hated, hated this course for a long while. I put off taking it (7-8 HOURS of videos and readings a week -- what the??? Some courses I've taken weren't even half that in their entities!). I tried to disenroll.

When I finally sucked it up and started the course, I slowly became addicted. It took me two weeks to finish the first week and I finished the last two weeks of the course in 6 days.

I love this course. Everyone should take it.

By Om P

•Aug 15, 2019

Hats off to the professor for being able to explain such mind-boggling concepts about the very nature of existence in an entertaining and intuitive way. One of my favorite courses on Coursera by far!

By Arnav J

•Nov 12, 2018

This is a very interesting course that is taught in a way that makes it even more interesting. Concepts are built from the bottom up and the process is enjoyable.

By Raheela S

•Dec 14, 2019

Great for people who have no background in mathematics whatsoever.

By Susan M

•Feb 5, 2019

I enjoyed this course tremendously and recommend it to anyone who wants to delve into the Special Theory of Relativity. It's easy to see why Larry Randles Lagerstrom has received awards for excellence in teaching. He knows where students are likely to get confused and gives careful explanations along with helpful reminders, so students can move along with the material without having to go back and re-read earlier sections.

By Avi

•Dec 5, 2019

This course is both stimulating and inspiring largely in part due to the delivery of the materials by Prof. Larry Randles Lagerstrom. This journey, is one that I would highly recommend anyone who is in interested, or even curious about this topic, should take.

By Mike K

•Mar 4, 2019

Although the pace can sometimes be slow, Larry's presentation is a model for all teachers.

By John G

•Jun 26, 2017

Can't believe this course is taught to Stanford students (or any college students). The lecturer is soooo repetitive. He tells you what he's going to tell you, then he tells you and then he recaps. And he summarizes it all at the start of the next lecture. And there's a separate summary lecture at the end of each week. That said, he explains the material well. Cut the lectures by 2/3 and you'll have a 5-star course.

By Бенуа М

•Jan 27, 2021

An amazingly clear overview of the matter. The professor takes it step-by-step, religiously. I succeeded the course, but now I think I want to do it again, taking more notes, doing all the homework (which I did none). Don't rush! It's fundamentally important for your understanding of the universe.

As a reading, I recommend "A Journey into Gravity and Spacetime", by John A. Wheeler. Perfect further reading for this course.

Edit a year later: This class is actually more powerful than Einstein's own book to understand the matter. Why? White board is why. The Professor extensively uses drawings, clear algebra and even props to get the point across, whereas reading Einstein's original requires a large capacity of abstraction. If the algebra is too difficult, you can zone out and still get the point in the conclusion. A must 101 course for anyone interested in this subject. The airplane versus wind example wedges your mind open for the whole theory to be fathomable, like a foot in the door. It's amazing to be able to understand this and observe the abstract concepts become actually understood concepts.

By Rajagopal G

•Sep 13, 2020

I loved Professor Larry Lagerstorms beautiful and methodical derivations of the key results of Special Relativity. He made those wierd things like "time dilation" and "length contraction" look so simple and logical, with the step by step derivations, which a high-school boy can understand easily.

I really understood the Twin Paradox finally, which I never could find in undergraduate text books (even Feymann lectures does not come clean!) because none of them revealed or even mentions the handy concept " leading clocks lag".

Once this is and explained, (which the professor does with consummate ease, for the students!) this famous paradox can be explained within the concept of Special Relativity, without resorting to General Relativity, if you care to ignore acceleration) using the space time diagrams, without calling them Minkowski diagrams.

Just wonderful. Will take more courses by this master explainer.

Thanks Larry

By Esteve C G

•Nov 7, 2019

It has been very interesting and exciting to follow this course.

It was also challenging to complete it with a quite good comprehension of the subject. However there are some concepts I'll have to review trying a better understanding.

I have really enjoyed the way how professor Lagerstrom explains the concepts in a so plain manner.

Thank you for doing it so well.

Kind Regards.

By Alex C

•Aug 25, 2021

This is a truly phenomenal class. As a high school student that has just learn very basic physic principle, it is totally understandable and not too difficult to grasp. This is a perfect introductory couse for the Theory of Relativity. The meterials are great and the proffesor is spectaculer at explaning some complex concepts. Highly recommend it.