For the last week or so, on a physics blog I follow, I’ve been part of a debate about the nature of time. It’s been interesting and fun, but the conversation has reached that point where folks are mainly maintaining their positions, and it seems that the matter has stalled.
Some of the on-going assertions bemused me so much, that I was about to tender one more rebuttal comment… When I remembered what a wiser person, “back in the day” (before the web), said about online debates: State your view. Support it further if you need to address points raised. But once you’ve covered it well enough, just stop. After that, you’re just wasting your time; it’s rare that anyone changes their mind on the internet. Including yours.
Fair enough. I can natter on about it to myself on my own blog, though…
This week I’ve focused on the relativity of time under motion, and we’ve seen that moving very fast allows “time travel” into the future. Very handy if you don’t mind the one-way trip. What’s more, a spaceship capable of such a flight is physically possible, so it’s a “time machine” we know works!
On Monday I described how fast-moving, but short-lived, muons created high in the atmosphere live long enough to reach the ground due to time dilation. That’s just one place we see Special Relativity actually working exactly as Einstein described. For another, fast-moving particles at CERN have decay times showing they, too, have slow clocks.
As we’ll see today, light’s behavior requires time appear to run slower!
Last time we saw that Em non-paradoxically time-travels over three years into Al’s future by flying 12 light years at half the speed of light for just over two decades. Her journey completed, Em has aged only 20.8 years while Al has aged 24.
That may not seem like much of a gain, but Em was only moving really fast — not really, really fast. If she travels at 99% of light-speed, her round trip shortens to 1.7 years while Al doesn’t wait much longer than it takes light to make the six light-year round trip: 12.12 years! And at 99.9% c, Em’s whole trip takes her only half a year!
Today we break down dime tilation. I mean, time dilation!
So far this week we have Em taking a round-trip to planet Noether at half the speed of light. Upon her return she discovers that, while she’s aged 23.8 years, Al (who stayed home on Earth babysitting Theories) has aged 27. It took her well over twenty years to do it, but Em effectively traveled 3.2 years into the future.
Last time we saw that — so long as Em is in constant motion — there is symmetry between Al and Em with regard to who is moving and who isn’t. Both can claim the other is (or they are). Both views are valid. Until Em stops. Or starts, for that matter.
Today we look at Em’s “time shadow” — it’s a key to the puzzle!
Last time we watched friend Em make a six light-year trip to planet Noether while friend Al stays home on Earth working on Theories. It turns out that Al ages 27 years while Em ages only 23 (point 8). This is not due to special diet, but to Special Relativity slowing Em’s clock on account of her fast motion through space.
We also saw that once Em stops at Noether, this breaks the symmetry of the two valid points of view regarding their motion (Em and ship are moving vs Al, Earth, and space, are moving).
Today we examine the trip before that point, while it is symmetrical.
We’ve covered a great deal of ground in the last four weeks. (Writing a series of posts this long is a new experience for me! I hope you’re getting something out of it, too.) We’ve learned that motion, velocity, simultaneity, and length, are all relative to your frame of reference — motion changes your perception of these things. This week we’ll see that time is also relative — motion changes that, too!
So far we only needed a (very imaginary) train to demonstrate the effects of Special Relativity. An Earthly frame of reference was enough to illustrate how motion affects velocity, simultaneity, and length.
But when it comes to time, we’re gonna need spaceships!
Last time I focused on how it was possible for Al to see — even enclose in a tunnel — a train that appears shorter to him due to its motion. It turns out that the train Al sees is a stack of time slices of the train at different moments. As we’ve seen, lots of things look different in a moving frame.
Today I want to say a little about Em’s point of view, run some numbers, and take you through a little math (just one equation, I promise). Then, because it’s Friday (when I try to write about light), I’ll introduce you to light cones.
They’re not actually necessary, but they’re kinda cool.
Last time’s Too Long Train illustration demonstrates that length is relative. Observers moving at different rates measure the length of an object differently. The faster something moves in your frame of reference, the more its length contracts along the direction of motion.
In previous weeks we saw that motion, speed, and simultaneity, are relative; now we see that length is also relative. Next week I’ll talk about the relativity of time. Today I want to dig a little deeper into the length contraction part of Special Relativity.
It’ll be a factor when we get to the spaceships!
Last time we explored the Simultaneous Lightning Strikes illustration of Special Relativity. In that scenario, on-the-ground observer Al sees simultaneous lightning strikes to a passing (very) high-speed train. On-the-train observer Em agrees both bolts hit the train (one front; one rear), but sees one happening first followed by the other.
The next scenario reverses the situation. This time traveler Em sees simultaneous events on the train and bystander Al sees them happening one after the other.
Today we explore: Peace Treaty (on a Train)!
For the last three weeks I’ve been laying a firm groundwork for the more interesting part of the series. Perhaps there was too much time and detail: I seem to have lost much of my audience (not that the lecture hall was packed in the first place).
I’ve long believed in the importance of basic knowledge — it’s stood me in good stead through life. But I know not everyone shares my appetite for details. For what it’s worth, the rest is the fun part, where all that groundwork goes into action.
This week, trains; next week, spaceships!