This is a question that I am surprised to not have seen before (especially since I have had to remind myself of the answer more than once – including, I suspect but can’t be sure, from way back before I entered my dotage).

It is true that in one space dimension the transformation equations

[math]x’=\gamma(x-\beta t)[/math] and [math]t’=\gamma(t-\beta x)[/math]are completely symmetrical with respect to interchange of [math]x[/math] with [math]t[/math] and [math]x’[/math] with [math]t’[/math].

(and in the case of three space dimensions the same applies if [math]x[/math] and [math]x’[/math] are the coordinates in the same direction as the relative velocity, so it’s not got anything to do with the dimension).

So what is the difference?

Well here it is in a nutshell.

When we measure the length of a moving measuring rod, we look at both ends at the same time and so are looking at the spatial distance between two events at the same time in our frame of reference.

But when we measure the time between two ticks of a moving clock we are looking at the time difference between two events that are NOT at the same spatial position in our frame.

So the nature of the two measurements is not symmetrical with respect to interchange of space and time.

I may add some more explanation and diagrams to show how this does lead to contraction for the rod length and dilation for the tick interval, but I wanted to get this off my chest right away – and also to address a couple of natural follow-up questions.

Namely, what kind of measurements would give the symmetrical outcome? Are there situations in which these others might be relevant? And why do we instinctively prefer the ones we do?

So, for example, what kind of time measurement would be symmetrical compared to our usual rod length measurement (and so would give a “time contraction” rather than the usual time dilation)?

Since the rod length involves looking at both ends at the same time in our frame, the corresponding time measurement would involve looking at the interval between two ticks at the same place. But how can we do this if the clock is moving? Well we could if the clock was extended in space, and if we have a long train of clocks that are synchronized in their own frame, then you can easily check that observers who look at the time between the ticks right in front of them will actually see a shorter interval than that measured by the travelling system – ie a time contraction.

And going the other way, what kind of measurement would give a length dilation? Well that would have to be the symmetric version of our usual clock measurement. And corresponding to our usual measurement of the time interval between two ticks at the same place in the moving clock’s frame, interchanging space and time would have us measuring the spatial distance between events where the two ends of the rod are at the same time in the rod’s frame. For example the managers of the rod might set off flares at both ends in a way that they, travelling with the rod, perceive as simultaneous. If we measure the distance between where we see those two flares then it will indeed appear dilated relative to the length of the rod in its own frame.

So now we come to the final question. Is there anything really “wrong” about these alternative kinds of measurement? If so what is it? Or is there just something about us which makes us think of what we do as natural and the alternative as somehow, if not actually wrong, then at least rather odd?

Here’s what I think (at least for now). The thing that makes us prefer to measure lengths in terms of events at the same time in our frame but times in terms of events at the same place in the moving frame is the fact that we, as blobs of space time, are much more extended in time than in space. (This is evident in the fact that we live for many years but do not extend for many light years in our spatial extent – or equivalently that in units adapted to our own spatial and temporal extent the numerical value of c is very large.)

So here’s a follow-up question. Could we imagine an entity which was the other way around? (ie of brief duration but of great spatial extent) And from the point of view of such an entity would it make sense to define measurements differently (as suggested above to achieve the effect of time contraction and length dilation)?

OR is it more just a matter of causality?

P.S. This is a question and answer that I have been meaning to post for some time, but was prompted to do so by Domino Valdano’s excellent answer to another question (in which she covers pretty much the same ground with a slightly different way of expressing the ultimate reason for why we measure as we do – which I may yet end up deciding that I prefer to my own). Please do read that one too!