Dictionary

spacetime

Already in special relativity, observer in motion relative each other will not, in general, agree as to whether two events happen simultaneously, or as to how great is the distance between two objects. They do, however, agree as to what events there are, although not to when and where they happen. This observer-independent totality of all events is called spacetime. How spacetime is split into space and time can differ from observer to observer.

Every-day space has three dimensions. Adding time adds another dimension – spacetime has four dimensions, all in all.

We are used to the notion of a point in space – an object with but a single location, defined completely once its space coordinates are given. In spacetime, a spacetime point is an object defined completely once its space coordinates and its time coordinate are given – which makes a spacetime point nothing but an elementary event.

The idea of spacetime is, in addition to its role in special relativity, a building block of general relativity. Analogous to how a plane is flat, but the surface of a sphere is curved, in general relativity, curved or distorted versions of the simple, flat spacetime of special relativity play a role. Spacetime curvature, in general relativity, is intimately connected with gravity.

For an introduction to the basics of both theories of relativity, check out the chapters Special relativity and General relativity in Elementary Einstein. Sometimes, it can be helpful to view spacetime in analogy to ordinary space – such analogies are explored in the spotlight topics Time dilation on the road (for time dilation) and Twins on the road (for the twin effect).