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!)....

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

SS

Dec 8, 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.

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By Mohammad A

•Oct 25, 2019

EXCELLENT

By harsh r

•Oct 2, 2018

This course is just okay. The professor seemed nice and explained the concepts well. However it takes a painstaking long hours just to proceed to the next material(if you aren’t skipping stuff) as he just keeps over-explaining. The problems are far too easy , if you want to do relativity from a quantitative standpoint. Also,my biggest complaint is the introduction, which lasts for about 3 hours. And it takes around middle of the 2nd week to get started. I get it, make haste slow, but not to a crawl.

By Peter O

•May 18, 2018

The course was too simple and the derivations too slow. I expected more involved math and harder quizzes.

By sandesh k

•May 16, 2017

no math

By Ben P

•Feb 16, 2017

This fascinating course presented by a historian of science covers not just the basics of special relativity but the historical context as well. The lecturer starts off each week with some Einstein quotes and goes to great depths to explain the basic concepts at a level that is accessible to students with minimal experience of maths and physics. The concepts are firmly drilled in with plenty of optional quizzes after each mini-topic, and a summary video at the end of each week. The lectures are long but anyone short on time has the option to go straight to the weekly summary/quiz, and/or play videos at up to 2x speed (especially in weeks 2 and 3).

The main highlight for me was the explanation of the famous Twins Paradox and other related paradoxes which are resolved by understanding frames of reference and the relativity of simultaneity. Another bonus was an explanation of the bending of light by gravity through a simple thought experiment involving an accelerated elevator.

Some important topics not covered in the course, or only hinted at, are: treatment of accelerated reference frames (required to derive the relativistic rocket equations), relativistic momentum and kinetic energy (required to calculate the rocket fuel required) and relativistic energy (used to derive Einstein's mass-energy equivalence formula).

Overall I highly recommend the course to anyone with the time and inclination.

By Vivaan S

•Jun 10, 2021

What an incredible experience. When I started the course, i went forward with the pre-existing notion that Special Relativity is really tough to grasp. But Larry (the instructor) was somehow able to take such complex ideas and distill them down to a straightforward and easy to understand explanation. His teaching was honestly amazing, and Stanford is lucky to have him as a teacher. As for the course itself, it was a perfect balance between a quantitative and a qualitative approach. There isn't a lot of math, but at the same time it's just challenging enough, and it's made better by Larry's aforementioned amazing teaching! The tests are relatively easy (pun most definitely intended) and can be challenging at times. I started the course with a basic knowledge of relativity and not a big lover of Physics (I'm more of a Chemistry and Biology guy). But i've ended the course with a newfound love for Physics (and actually started delving deeper into Astronomy, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory). I have to thank Larry for reinstating my love for Physics, and for teaching this course absolutely perfectly. Not a single time was I bored, and even when i found myself not being able to grasp something perfectly, it was always re-explained in the next video (or the weekly summaries). One of the best courses out there, and I highly recommend it! Thank you again, Mr Lagerstrom!

By Dharil S

•Sep 8, 2020

This was an amazing course. I'm a third-year undergraduate student pursuing BSc(HONS) Physics. Since I'm already well-equipped with calculus and algebra, most of the course content in terms of mathematics was pretty easy and trivial for me. However, Prof. Larry's teaching method was extremely impressive. For a course that requires you to alter your common sense, his narration was perfect and articulate, which I ultimately found to be helpful in nourishing and supporting my intellect on all of the deepest insights of special relativity. The course is comprehensively designed and the problem sets have insightful questions of varying difficulty. And, after completing this course, it seems to me that I have a deeper and better understanding of the subject than my friends who studied SR from other platforms.

I would recommend almost every student to take up this course; because special relativity is more about transforming and shaping your common sense rather than being a mere theory-laden subject.

I'm grateful to Stanford University-Coursera and of course, to all the faculty mentors who understood and responded to my questions at almost speed=c. And, as Prof. Larry requested us in Week 1 to remember something throughout the course, I'd like to re-emphasize the same to any prospective student of this course- "Festina Lente" (make haste slowly).

By Jean-Jacques W

•Nov 19, 2020

The quality of this course can be described by just one word: Excellent!

As a former commercial instructor, I very much appreciated the didactic qualities of prof. Lagerstrom and his basic motto: Festina Lente

The theory of special relativity is presented step by step in an incremental, systematic and progressive manner.

This includes much repetition and a rather slow pace. But don't think to soon that you can skip some parts. Relativity is counter-intuitive and often confusing. So, be patient and follow the pace of the instructor. Do all of the practice and final quizzes. They are designed in such a way that you only get them right if you really understood the lectures.

The instructor doesn’t use slides but writes everything down on a white board. This is a strong didactic method: it forces you to follow all of the steps and invites you to take notes.

I particularly liked the biographical details and the background of Einstein's thinking. This makes it easier to understand the person of Einstein and the background of his thinking process.

At the beginning of the course the instructor offers as a bonus some good didactic advices on how to study (online).

Larry Lagerstrom and course assistants: thank you all for this terrific course!

(I wish there was a sixth star to add tot the review)

By George R

•Dec 15, 2021

Larry Logerstrom's Understanding Einstein: The Special Theory of Relativity was remarkably clear, well taught, and very well organized. The context for the formation of theory was extremely valuable. What surprised me the most was that all the basic principles covered in the course, and in fact, developed by Einstein, relied on very basic algebra combined with only two principles. That makes the sometimes non-intuitive reality of relativity even easier to accept. At first my thought was that the class was going to be too simplistic and that I would be bored (being a more senior scientist myself), but that was definitely not the case... at least for me.

I did briefly explore some other on-line courses on the basics or special relativity. Although all are fairly good and are taught by well qualified instructors, some of the other courses seem to dive too quickly into conclusions and consequences with less time given to the logical and historical development of the theory.

By Michael M

•Jun 14, 2017

So you're wondering if you have the ability to learn about the Special Theory of Relativity. After all, this theory was developed by a genius and it involves math, something that many people shy away from. Doesn't it take a background in physics and confidence in your math ability to get something out of the class? No. The remarkable thing about this class is that is presented at multiple levels simultaneously. If you are confident in your knowledge of physics and math, the explanations and optional exercises will be a welcome challenge. At the same time, the general concepts are explained in such a manner that you'll learn enough about the Special Theory of Relativity to get the "big picture" even if you don't immerse yourself in the mathematics. From there you can learn about it in more detail, if you wish. The test for me in taking any class is whether I'm able to explain the concepts to someone else in casual conversation. This course certainly met the test.

By Nicolás F C

•Sep 1, 2017

This course was exactly what I was looking for to get a good understanding of the Special Theory of Relativity for a non-specialist. The course progression was very good, building new concepts on top of the previous ones. The video lectures were lively and well presented. The difficulty level and the required math skills were exactly what the course description indicated.

I recommend future students to take this course at a steady pace, and to allocate enough time to take notes, to review the concepts and to go back if necessary. Don’t rush through it. It is very useful to try to solve the optional problem sets. The main difficulty is not related with the math, but with the relationship between the equations and the physical phenomena they describe.

I am 100% satisfied with this course. As a matter of fact, I plan to go again through my notes to make my own personal recap of the main concepts and formulas.

Thanks a lot to Professor Lagerstrom!

By Satish R

•Apr 16, 2020

Very professional approach by Professsor Larry Lagerstrom. His patience in teaching is highly commendable. The key feature of the course is "Make Haste Slowly" This ensures that no matter what background of academics you come from, at the end of the course you will have understood the principle aspects of Special Relativity. The syllabus is designed very well. Both qualitative and quantitative elements are covered nicely. A participant will understand all the key concepts of special relativity like time dilation, length contraction, relativity of simultaneity etc He will also understand the most famous paradox of special The Twin Paradox and get some insight into the most famous equation E=mc2. I salute Prof Lagerstrom for his extreme patience in teaching a complex topic. I recommend this course to anyone who wants to know a bit about how the Universe works even for those without any background knowledge of Physics or Mathematics.

By HARDEEP M

•Jan 16, 2021

MY HEARTIEST THANKS, GRATEFULNESS TO SIR ALBERT EINSTEIN FOR HIS GREAT CONTRIBUTIONS TO HUMANITY, FOR MAKING OUR LIFE SO BEAUTIFUL.

& SINCERE HEARTIEST THANKS TO SIR LARRY RANDLES LAGERSTROM FOR THIS BEAUTIFULLY DESIGNED GREAT COURSE FULL OF KNOWLEDGE AND LEARNING.

The most beautiful and exceptional course I have ever attended. The way of teaching of professor is outstanding. The contents of this course are exceptional and greatly interesting. The most beautiful thing is the starting of course, lecture about how to proceed and work in course, and the journey of Albert Einstein and Quotations. I actually felt I had a journey with lifetime of my dearest Albert Einstein, and felt infinitely great.

After attending this course, my dream of joining Stanford sometime has accelerated higher and have got a dream to meet Professor Lagerstrom soon.

Thankyou so so much for this beautiful course and work.

Thanks and Regards

Hardeep Singh Manhas

By Nada A A

•Apr 9, 2018

It is a very good course that is well organized and explained. The instructor was extremely great; he uses a lot of examples and thought experiments to help us imagine the situation. Although relativity is such a hard topic to learn for many people, the approach of instruction in this course makes it interesting and easy to be comprehended. After the course, you will find that you have learnt a great amount of knowledge about the topic and you can go into discussions about relativity related issues, even that you don't feel stressed during the course by the enormous amount of materials. Moreover, this course is suitable for anyone interested in the topic, even without much knowledge in physics before, because the course explains everything even the basic concepts.

I learnt A LOT from this course, and it encouraged me to love the topic, get excited about online learning and go even deeper in relativity study.

By Cory B (

•Jun 20, 2020

Prof is great. Methodical and precise. Try to follow a lecture with Whitten at the helm, and you will find your eraser worn fast. Not the case here. I took this as a refresher and found myself impatient and a bit frustrated at the hand-holding. Paradoxically, I was also comforted by the hand-holding ;) ...SR & GR are an odd pair because you do not get an intuitive sense of things until you bring gravity & acceleration & equivalency principle into the picture. Thus the need for hand-holding, I suppose... Anyone whom has a functional understanding of Newtonian physics needs to extend this to SR, then GR (at least qualitatively) to gain a more intimate understanding of the nature of nature. Don't be intimidated by Einstein. The man's insights were most likely due to single-minded focus and persistence. Armed with only resolve, I am confident that you will succeed in this course.

By GIRISH M D

•Nov 9, 2017

Mr. Larry Randles Lagerstrom is very knowledgeable and he is an excellent teacher. Course is very well designed and presented. The subject matter was enough to get incite into the 'Special Theory of Relativity' and also covered the history of Einstein 's era. I understood most of the things due to Mr. Lagerstrom's way of presenting the facts. Most interestingly, I understood the way things work in the realm of Special Theory of Relativity which was a big question in my mind for long time. Quizzes were very thoughtful and really testing the knowledge gained in the respective lectures. I have not solved the extra questions set given at the end of last few weeks yet but I will do that in near future and in case of doubts I would like to contact Mr. Lagerstrom via e-mail.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and I would like to attend many more such courses. Really thanks and appreciate.

By Mark W

•Dec 31, 2020

Excellent course for gaining great insights and understanding of the Special Theory of Relativity without needing complicated mathematics. The professor (Larry Lagerstorm) did a fantastic job with creating the syllabus such that you don't need super high level math to really grasp the concepts of the theory and most of its implications both mathematically and physically.

I have the advantage of having touched on some of these concepts at university (over 10 years ago), but the way Mr Lagerstorm explains the concepts with the photo clock principle really solidified and deepened my understanding. The added insights of Einstein's life and other general historical information was also a great supplement to try understand the context and how Einstein and other scientists come up with this crazy stuff.

I really enjoyed the journey he took us through this course.

By Eva B

•Apr 19, 2022

It was my pleasure to learn about the Special Theory of Relativity, although I didn't finish at once. Sometimes we need obstacles to learn to really appreciate what is ahead of us. I enjoyed to do some calculus, and the space-time diagrams were also great mind exercises. The course put into context a lot about time dilation and length contraction, also I was very curious of the Michelson-Morley experiment, and received a great explanation. I think it is adequately highlighted that time is not reversible, causation is a very important teaching in madhyamaka and yogácára buddhist philosophy, time and space are foundations of our experienced reality. The course far exceeded my original expectations, thank you very much, Professor Lagerstrom. I will definitely read more in this topic, and go on with General Theory of Relativity.

By CHIRAG J

•Jun 3, 2020

The course provides insight to any beginner in the field of relativity and how Einstein perceived it. The fundamentals are presented in a very simple manner. All the concepts of relativistic motion are taught very well. Many ideas like length contraction, time dilation, etc. make the learners think their brains out much to their fun. The course also throws some light to the practical applications of the Special Theory of Relativity. The famous equation is also discussed (though in brief). Introduction to Spacetime diagrams, worldlines and related content is very well presented. Lastly, the course ends with a brief idea of the Equivalence principle which laid the foundations for the General Theory of Relativity. I would highly recommend this course to anyone who wants to learn the concepts of relativity.

By Inés K

•Mar 1, 2021

I simply loved this course. Ideas like 'Festina lente' motivated me to take it slowly, make an effort to understand even the mathematical part of the course (though math was never my forte!), and made me review my math skills by watching u-tube videos on arithmetic and practise by solving equations. The way Professor Randles Lagerstrom explained things, so that you never get lost and frustrated, was motivating and I was committed to passing all the tests with 100 % . Einstein's concept of 'the pleasure of thinking' (something my grandfather taught me) was never clearer to me than in this course. I'd like to encourage all those who read this review to go ahead and do the course, and also to remember that one can never learn enough. There is so much to learn out there, we should never stop learning.

By Justin L

•Apr 25, 2017

This course was truly an excellent way to learn about Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. The content covered most of the main aspects of Special Relativity, and the instructor did a top notch job of explaining how the various aspects of the theory are derived and many implications of the Theory. The maths involved in this course is no more than high-school level algebra with a few tricks, and as such the course should be within most people's reach with a bit of effort. Mind you, the concepts themselves are somewhat counter-intuitive, so be prepared to think a lot about the implications. However, all that being said, I highly recommend this course! It is a very well presented and accessible way to start to grasp Einstein's most profound work in his "miracle year" of 1905.

By Fabrizio P

•Apr 24, 2020

Well, I wanted to finally tackle the famous theory that revolutionized 20th century physics as a matter of general culture, but going beyond the superficial cualitative explanations you found here and there. This course is absolutely great, and helped me accomplish that goal.

If the last year you dealt with algebra was many years ago, don't despair: the professor offers a clear review of all the math you need. The professor, by the way, is what makes this course great, as he is really exceptional at teaching.

The course requires patience and dedication (specially week 5), but at the end is greatly rewarding, and it allows you to go for harder material (meaning undergraduate level books on the subject).

I would suggest you do all the problem sets.

Thank you very much, Stanford.

By Ronald N

•Nov 13, 2016

Professor Larry Lagerstrom is an exceptional teacher. He explained the Theory of Special Relativity in such a manner that the theory became easy to understand. Not only has the Theory become understandable, he also managed to convey the beauty of the theory. I cannot find words to describe how I have enjoyed the series of lectures. From very simple concepts of the property of waves, he led to a very deep understanding of the principle of Light Constancy. From that principle, it became very easy to understand Time Dilation, the Length Contraction, and then Lorentz Transformation, and finally, the Invariant Interval. The journey he has planned was brilliant. Once one has a firm grasp of those principles, the explanation of the Twin Paradox became a "piece of cake".

By Robert E K P

•Aug 20, 2017

The course was fantastic. I have struggled for years to understand the Special Theory of Relativity and I finally have a good grasp of the theory. The course is not difficult for anyone with at least a fundamental grasp of algebra and should be no problem with more math in their background. I would really like to see a course on the General Theory of Relativity taught by Professor Langerstrom. The lectures were clear and well documented and the short quizzes at the end of each subsection of the class materials really helped to make understanding the material presented easy to comprehend. I'd also love to see a book written by Dr. Langerstrom based on the course. I have a couple around home and they aren't as clear as the material presented in this course.

By joseph s

•Jul 29, 2020

This was my first time taking a course in this format from Coursera. The course exceeded all of my expectations. The course was very effective and I can’t wait to attend similar courses. The instructor, Larry Lagerstrom, was very knowledgeable. Larry provided a wealth of information about Einstein and the Special Theory of Relativity that were easy to follow and comprehend. I cannot express how great the instructor was and how great the overall content of the class material was. All of the videos and related documents were very clear and easy to follow. Larry Lagerstrom made it very easy to understand a very difficult subject otherwise. He was able to demonstrate and explain the various topics with relative ease.

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