Where Did that Hour Go?

With daylight savings time ending and most of North America “losing an hour” this weekend, I thought it would be fun to look at time and how it can fluctuate more than we think….

At first glance, time is a pretty boring topic. It plods on in a linear fashion pretty much oblivious to what we do. We all have the same amount of hours in the day and it’s more about how you use those hours…right?

But what if time didn’t behave in the simple way we think it does? What if one hour for me was actually different than one hour for you? In fact, that is possible!

That’s exactly what Einstein discovered in his special theory of relativity. As someone gets closer to the speed of light, time is warped and travels slower for them. Rather than going into all the physics (which I don’t understand myself) I think the twin paradox provides the best example of this theory:

In physics, the twin paradox is a thought experiment in Special Relativity, in which a person who makes a journey into space in a high-speed rocket will return home to find he or she has aged less than an identical twin who stayed on Earth. This result appears puzzling, since the situation seems symmetrical, as the latter twin can be considered to have done the travelling with respect to the former. Hence it is called a “paradox”. In fact, there is no contradiction and the apparent paradox is explained within the framework of relativity theory, that only one twin has undergone acceleration and deceleration, thus differentiating the two cases. -Wikipedia, Twin Paradox

At first, it sounds like something out of Star Trek. The idea that time slows down at high speeds must be ludicrous and could never be proven. Well, the very next sentence of the above quote is:

The effect has been verified experimentally using precise measurements of clocks flown in aeroplanes.

Believe it or not, Einstein’s theory on this (like many of his other ones) has actually proven to be true in real tests. So time is not as solid and boring as we think it is. It can bend and fluctuate based on the speed someone is traveling. Who knows what practical use this knowledge will provide, but it makes you wonder in what other ways time could be different than we think.

One of the best books to come out and explore this topic is Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. Lightman’s book wonders what Einstein must have been dreaming about when he came up with his theories on time and wonders what time might be like on other worlds. Each chapter is an exploration of those fantasy worlds. Here is a selection of my favorites:

  • The Groundhog’s World: In this world time repeats on itself endlessly, but people do not know they will live their life over. And they have already lived the same life millions of times. Every perfect first kiss has already been performed many times by the same two people. They also don’t know that every mistake they make has been made already. Nothing is new or has not already happened once.
  • The Highlander’s World: In this world scientists discovered that time flows slower further from the Earth. So everyone begins to build houses as high in the air as possible. In fact, it becomes a status symbol to have the highest house in the neighborhood. Mountains become the wealthy suburbs and only the poor ived on the flat earth. Ironically, the thin air of the mountains makes the people living there prematurely frail.
  • The Ender’s World: In this world, time will end at a fixed point and everyone knows when it is. One year before the end all the schools are closed. Why learn for the future when there will not be one? One month before the end, people stop working and reconnect with old friends and family. One day before the end, they spend all of their remaining money in savings doing everything that they’ve ever wanted to do. One hour before the end, everyone goes outside, holds hands and closes their eyes awaiting their shared fate.

We think we know what time is like, but Einstein proved that it’s not as obvious as we think. So on this weekend when we lose an hour, consider what life would be like if time was just a little different?

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once. -Einstein