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I know that thought experiment about trains when a flash of light in the middle reaches the both end simultaneously for a passenger but different times for the bystander.

So were there (non-thought) experiments that directly checked this?

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If you have time dialation, then you're going to have to lose simultaneity. Time dilation is very very well tested. –  Jerry Schirmer May 31 '13 at 19:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I think the answer to this depends a lot on your definition of "directly." Relativity of simultaneity is built into the Lorentz transformation, and Lorentz invariance is one of the most precisely tested physical theories in all of history. Essentially you're asking for an experiment that verifies one element of the matrix involved in the Lorentz transformation, but every element of the matrix is present in all cases. I would consider the Sagnac effect to be a fairly direct test, and the Sagnac effect was one of the effects observed in the Hafele-Keating experiment, as well as many other, earlier tests of relativity. Every time you fly on a commercial jet, you're benefiting from a ring laser gyro, which works based on the Sagnac effect.

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The most direct experiment confirming this is the Kennedy-Thorndike experiment. It used two different length arms so modifying the Michelson-Morley experiment that had shown that no local "aether" explained observations calling for an explanation that Einstein provided. P.S. If you want seek more technical explanation of the methods, it is readily found on the Web using those names.

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[...] that thought experiment about trains when a flash of light in the middle reaches the both end[s] simultaneously for a passenger but different times for the bystander.

That's not really a great/correct description of (a variant of) the well-known thought experiment, closely related to Einstein's (final and enduring) definition of how to measure "simultaneity".

Instead: if some (third) passenger in the middle between two given passengers on a train (e.g. the two ends of the train) stated a signal (flash of light) then the corresponding indications of the two given passengers/ends receiving this signal are simultaneous; and if some railroad tie in the middle between two given bystanders stated a signal (flash of light) then the corresponding indications of the two given bystanders receiving this signal are simultaneous as well.

It is important to understand that the railroad tie is not identified as middle between the two given passengers, and that the mentioned third passenger is not identified as middle between the two given bystanders; not even "at the moment they pass each other". The railroad tie always moves relative to the ("moving") train with all its passengers; and all passengers (in particular the third one, in the middle between the given two passengers) always move relative to the bystanders.

So were there (non-thought) experiments that directly checked this?

There are no meaningful experiments without underlying thought experiments. There cannot be any measurement values obtained from observational data without first deciding on (and then sticking to) some particular method of measurement. To paraphrase Niels Bohr: We must be able to tell our friends what we have done (or at least intended to do), so they'll also listen to what we have found.

And of course there is no experimental check of definitions (such as Einstein's definition mentioned above), or of terminology, or of "rules to play by"; there are ("only") experimental checks of hypotheses expressed in terms of definitions and terminology and "rules" (which one has decided to use, and which ought to be stuck to), such as:
whether bystander Alice took a sigh simultaneously to bystander Bob picking his nose, or not; or
whether the (third) passenger's name in the middle between the two given passengers Reese and Dewey was named "Malcolm", or not; or
whether all passengers moved equally (at the same velocity) relative to the bystanders, or not; etc.

In short: asking whether experiments "checked this" is absurd without thought-experimental definition of what "this" is supposed to be.

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None of this seems to address the question. –  Ben Crowell May 31 '13 at 19:16
    
My submitted answer (or rather reply) addresses the statement and related question of the OP: it is ill-posed. (I'll amend my answer to express this still more explicitly.) –  user12262 May 31 '13 at 19:20

It is logically wrong to state that the experiments mentioned in the other answers prove the relativity of simultaneity, since there are alternative theories to special relativity in agreement with all experiments to date in which absolute simultaneity is preserved. In other words no experiment has allowed to observe the relativity of simultaneity.

See the Mansouri and Sexl paper "A Test Theory of Special Relativity", I'm quoting the abstract:

An ether theory is constructed that maintains absolute simultaneity and is kinematically equivalent to special relativity

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This is a misinterpretation both of the RMS test theory and of this type of test theory in general. In the current fundamental theories of physics, Lorentz invariance is taken to be exact, and that means that regardless of the precision with which we can verify LI, it is still vulnerable to falsification by a later, more precise experiment. Any such hypothetical future falsification of LI would presumably lead to the existence of a preferred frame, since LI is mainly a statement of the nonexistence of preferred frames. Given a preferred frame, we have a preferred time coordinate, and [...] –  Ben Crowell Dec 7 at 20:04
    
[...] simultaneity becomes absolute in that sense. That doesn't mean that the many tests of the relativity of simultaneity become invalidated. We've experimentally verified that different observers get different results when they carry out synchronization. A preferred frame would just tell us that one privileged observer's result was preferred. Furthermore, RMS is purely a kinematic theory, and therefore its parameters would be specific to a certain measuring device, such as a specific kind of clock. Null results from clock-comparison experiments tell us that we really need a dynamical [...] –  Ben Crowell Dec 7 at 20:09
    
[...] test theory, which is provided by the SME of Colladay and Kostelecky, arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/9809521 . A vast amount of data has tightly constrained the Lorentz-violating parameters of the SME: arxiv.org/abs/0801.0287 –  Ben Crowell Dec 7 at 20:18
    
"We've experimentally verified that different observers get different results when they carry out synchronization. A preferred frame would just tell us that one privileged observer's result was preferred." Even when none of the observers in the experiment is in the preferred frame? –  user44558 Dec 7 at 22:13

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