The expression inertial frame of reference (Inertialsystem) was coined by Ludwig Lange in 1885, to replace Newton's definitions of "absolute space and time" by a more operational definition. As referenced by Iro, Lange proposed: A discussion of Lange's proposal can be found in Mach.
The inadequacy of the notion of "absolute space" in Newtonian mechanics is spelled out by Blagojević: The utility of operational definitions was carried much further in the special theory of relativity. Some historical background including Lange's definition is provided by DiSalle, who says in summary:
Newton viewed the first law as valid in any reference frame moving with uniform velocity relative to the fixed stars; that is, neither rotating nor accelerating relative to the stars. Today the notion of "absolute space" is abandoned, and an inertial frame in the field of classical mechanics is defined as: Hence, with respect to an inertial frame, an object or body accelerates only when a physical force is applied, and (following Newton's first law of motion), in the absence of a net force, a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will continue to move uniformly—that is, in a straight line and at constant speed. Newtonian inertial frames transform among each other according to the Galilean group of symmetries.
If this rule is interpreted as saying that straight-line motion is an indication of zero net force, the rule does not identify inertial reference frames, because straight-line motion can be observed in a variety of frames. If the rule is interpreted as defining an inertial frame, then we have to be able to determine when zero net force is applied. The problem was summarized by Einstein:
There are several approaches to this issue. One approach is to argue that all real forces drop off with distance from their sources in a known manner, so we have only to be sure that we are far enough away from all sources to insure that no force is present. A possible issue with this approach is the historically long-lived view that the distant universe might affect matters (Mach's principle). Another approach is to identify all real sources for real forces and account for them. A possible issue with this approach is that we might miss something, or account inappropriately for their influence (Mach's principle again?). A third approach is to look at the way the forces transform when we shift reference frames. Fictitious forces, those that arise due to the acceleration of a frame, disappear in inertial frames, and have complicated rules of transformation in general cases. On the basis of universality of physical law and the request for frames where the laws are most simply expressed, inertial frames are distinguished by the absence of such fictitious forces.
Newton enunciated a principle of relativity himself in one of his corollaries to the laws of motion:
This principle differs from the special principle in two ways: first, it is restricted to mechanics, and second, it makes no mention of simplicity. It shares with the special principle the invariance of the form of the description among mutually translating reference frames. The role of fictitious forces in classifying reference frames is pursued further below.
Inertial and non-inertial reference frames can be distinguished by the absence or presence of fictitious forces, as explained shortly. The presence of fictitious forces indicates the physical laws are not the simplest laws available so, in terms of the special principle of relativity, a frame where fictitious forces are present is not an inertial frame: Bodies in non-inertial reference frames are subject to so-called fictitious forces (pseudo-forces); that is, forces that result from the acceleration of the reference frame itself and not from any physical force acting on the body. Examples of fictitious forces are the centrifugal force and the Coriolis force in rotating reference frames.
How then, are "fictitious' forces to be separated from "real" forces? It is hard to apply the Newtonian definition of an inertial frame without this separation. For example, consider a stationary object in an inertial frame. Being at rest, no net force is applied. But in a frame rotating about a fixed axis, the object appears to move in a circle, and is subject to centripetal force (which is made up of the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force). How can we decide that the rotating frame is a non-inertial frame? There are two approaches to this resolution: one approach is to look for the origin of the fictitious forces (the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force). We will find there are no sources for these forces, no originating bodies. A second approach is to look at a variety of frames of reference. For any inertial frame, the Coriolis force and the centrifugal force disappear, so application of the principle of special relativity would identify these frames where the forces disappear as sharing the same and the simplest physical laws, and hence rule that the rotating frame is not an inertial frame.
Newton examined this problem himself using rotating spheres, as shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3. He pointed out that if the spheres are not rotating, the tension in the tying string is measured as zero in every frame of reference. If the spheres only appear to rotate (that is, we are watching stationary spheres from a rotating frame), the zero tension in the string is accounted for by observing that the centripetal force is supplied by the centrifugal and Coriolis forces in combination, so no tension is needed. If the spheres really are rotating, the tension observed is exactly the centripetal force required by the circular motion. Thus, measurement of the tension in the string identifies the inertial frame: it is the one where the tension in the string provides exactly the centripetal force demanded by the motion as it is observed in that frame, and not a different value. That is, the inertial frame is the one where the fictitious forces vanish. (See rotating bucket argument for original text. See rotating spheres for mathematical formulation.)
So much for fictitious forces due to rotation. However, for linear acceleration, Newton expressed the idea of undetectability of straight-line accelerations held in common:
This principle generalizes the notion of an inertial frame. For example, an observer confined in a free-falling lift will assert that he himself is a valid inertial frame, even if he is accelerating under gravity, so long as he has no knowledge about anything outside the lift. So, strictly speaking, inertial frame is a relative concept. With this in mind, we can define inertial frames collectively as a set of frames which are stationary or moving at constant velocity with respect to each other, so that a single inertial frame is defined as an element of this set.
For these ideas to apply, everything observed in the frame has to be subject to a base-line, common acceleration shared by the frame itself. That situation would apply, for example, to the elevator example, where all objects are subject to the same gravitational acceleration, and the elevator itself accelerates at the same rate.
where and represent shifts in the origin of space and time, and is the relative velocity of the two inertial reference frames. Under Galilean transformations, the time between two events () is the same for all inertial reference frames and the distance between two simultaneous events (or, equivalently, the length of any object, ) is also the same.
Einstein's theory of special relativity, like Newtonian mechanics, assumes the equivalence of all inertial reference frames, but makes an additional assumption, foreign to Newtonian mechanics, namely, that in free space light always is propagated with the speed of light c0, a defined value independent of its direction of propagation and its frequency, and also independent of the state of motion of the emitting body. This second assumption has been verified experimentally and leads to counter-intuitive deductions including:
These deductions are logical consequences of the stated assumptions, and are general properties of space-time, not properties pertaining to the structure of individual objects like atoms or stars, nor to the mechanisms of clocks.
These effects are expressed mathematically by the Lorentz transformation
where shifts in origin have been ignored, the relative velocity is assumed to be in the -direction and the Lorentz factor γ is defined by:
The Lorentz transformation is equivalent to the Galilean transformation in the limit c0 → ∞ (a hypothetical case) or v → 0 (low speeds).
Under Lorentz transformations, the time and distance between events may differ among inertial reference frames; however, the Lorentz scalar distance s2 between two events is the same in all inertial reference frames
From this perspective, the speed of light is only accidentally a property of light, and is rather a property of spacetime, a conversion factor between conventional time units (such as seconds) and length units (such as meters).
Incidentally, because of the limitations on speeds faster than the speed of light, notice that a rotating frame of reference (which is a non-inertial frame, of course) cannot be used out to arbitrary distances because at large radius its components would move faster than the speed of light. See Landau and Lifshitz.
Einstein’s general theory modifies the distinction between nominally "inertial" and "noninertial" effects by replacing special relativity's "flat" Euclidean geometry with a curved non-Euclidean metric. In general relativity, the principle of inertia is replaced with the principle of geodesic motion, whereby objects move in a way dictated by the curvature of spacetime. As a consequence of this curvature, it is not a given in general relativity that inertial objects moving at a particular rate with respect to each other will continue to do so. This phenomenon of geodesic deviation means that inertial frames of reference do not exist globally as they do in Newtonian mechanics and special relativity.
However, the general theory reduces to the special theory over sufficiently small regions of spacetime, where curvature effects become less important and the earlier inertial frame arguments can come back into play. Consequently, modern special relativity is now sometimes described as only a “local theory”. (However, this refers to the theory’s application rather than to its derivation.)
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