Why the Simple English Wikipedia is a good thing

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A light cone.

The Simple English Wikipedia is often derided for not really having a reason to exist, and no real standard for writing articles, and also due to the fact that simple Wikipedias in other languages have not been allowed, presumably because this would eventually end up with a doubling of the total number of Wikipedias to 500 or more.

But! One good thing about the Wikipedia is how it explains complex concepts. Take the page on special relativity for example. At the moment in the regular English Wikipedia it says:

Special relativity (SR) (also known as the special theory of relativity or STR) is the physical theory of measurement in inertial frames of reference proposed in 1905 by Albert Einstein (after the considerable and independent contributions of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré and others) in the paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies". It generalizes Galileo's principle of relativity–that all uniform motion is relative, and that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest (no privileged reference frames)–from mechanics to all the laws of physics, including both the laws of mechanics and of electrodynamics, whatever they may be. Special relativity incorporates the principle that the speed of light is the same for all inertial observers regardless of the state of motion of the source.

This theory has a wide range of consequences which have been experimentally verified, including counter-intuitive ones such as length contraction, time dilation and relativity of simultaneity, contradicting the classical notion that the duration of the time interval between two events is equal for all observers. (On the other hand, it introduces the space-time interval, which is invariant.) Combined with other laws of physics, the two postulates of special relativity predict the equivalence of matter and energy, as expressed in the mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc2, where c is the speed of light in a vacuum. The predictions of special relativity agree well with Newtonian mechanics in their common realm of applicability, specifically in experiments in which all velocities are small compared to the speed of light.

The theory is termed "special" because it applies the principle of relativity only to frames in uniform relative motion. Einstein developed general relativity to apply the principle more generally, that is, to any frame so as to handle general coordinate transformations, and that theory includes the effects of gravity. From the theory of general relativity it follows that special relativity will still apply locally (i.e. to the first order) to observers moving on arbitrary trajectories, and hence to any relativistic situation where gravity is not a significant factor.

Special relativity reveals that c is not just the velocity of a certain phenomenon, namely the propagation of electromagnetic radiation (light)—but rather a fundamental feature of the way space and time are unified as spacetime. A consequence of this is that it is impossible for any particle that has mass to be accelerated to the speed of light.

Ah yes, I see.


or maybe not. Show this to someone that has never heard of the concept and you'll likely end up with someone knowing little more about the concept than before.

What about on the Simple English Wikipedia? Well, it begins with the following:

Suppose you are moving toward something that is moving toward you. If you measure its speed, it will seem to be moving faster than if you were stopped. Now suppose you are moving away from something that is moving toward you. If you measure its speed again, it will seem to be moving more slowly. This is the idea of "relative speed."

Before Einstein, scientists were trying to measure the "relative speed" of light. They were doing this by measuring the speed of starlight reaching the Earth. If the Earth were moving toward a star, the starlight from it should seem faster than normal. If the Earth were moving away from a star, the starlight from it should seem slower than normal.

It did not matter who performed the experiments, where they were performed, or what starlight they used, the "relative speed" of light was always the same.

Einstein said this happens because there is something odd about distance and time. He thought that as the Earth moves through space, our clocks slow down (ever so slightly). So, any clock used to measure the speed of light is off by exactly the right amount to make light seem to be moving at its regular speed.

Also, Einstein said that as the Earth moves through space, our measuring devices change length (ever so slightly). So, any measuring device used to measure the speed of light is off by exactly the right amount to make the starlight seem to be moving at its regular speed.

Other scientists before Einstein had written about light seeming to go the same speed no matter how it was observed. The idea that made Einstein's relativity so revolutionary is that light doesn't just seem to go the same speed, it is always going the same speed no matter how an observer is moving.

Ah hah, so that's what it means! Simple English Wikipedia saves the day.

For some insight into the process on trying to make simple Wikipedias in other languages, you can start here. I would find a Simple German Wikipedia quite interesting myself, but if it keeps getting turned down then it can always be made on Wikia.com. Making a few rules of thumb for the Wikipedia would probably be quite easy: try to use the nominative as much as possible, try to keep words short, go with transitive over intransitive as much as possible, try to keep pronouns in as much as possible, etc.

The schon gewusst? (did you know?) part on the front page might be written as something like "weisst du das schon?" for example (assuming that doesn't look awkward - I'm not German so I have no idea what looks good and what doesn't).


Unknown said...

One aspect worth of notice is that it is often the case that I -- a non-native speaker of English -- have more difficulty in understanding a text in the Simple English Wikipedia than the corresponding text in the English Wikipedia.

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