Conceptual Understanding in Introductory Physics VI

In this post, I present a question from special relativity that addresses how we name reference frames. Students tend to blindly memorize names, terms, labels, and other minutiae that have little or nothing to do with the underlying physics.

In one problem, a clock is stated to be in the S frame and has a tick-tock of a certain duration. In another problem, the same clock is stated to be in the S’ frame and has a tick-tock of a shorter duration. Is there any danger in generalizing a clock’s measured behavior as always being associated with the S or S’ frame? In other words, articulate the repercussions, if there are any, of saying, “A clock in the S’ frame will always have a shorter tock-tock than a clock in the S frame.”

When I have given my own students this question (and I don’t use this question every semester) they have nearly always articulated a good response. How would your own introductory students fare?

In the next post, I will begin a series of conceptual questions themed around vector analysis.


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