Go Faster to Go Slower

As the semester seems to rush to a close, everyone is raising around, desperately trying to get things down. There are papers to write, papers to grade, tests to write, tests to grade, and a never ending parade of end of semester functions to enjoy and suffer through in turn. The faster we move, the faster time seems to go, which isn’t exactly how physics works.

Many times I’ve been told, if you need something to get done, give it to a busy person. (This is often be said as something is handed to me, unfortunately, but I first heard it as someone volunteered the very capable Karen Meech to do some work.) The idea is, someone who is usy has to be able to better manage their time, and is able to work more efficiently and with more focus.

Not sure if that’s true. In the last conversation I had with Karen, I determined that we simply don’t sleep very much (and she sleeps less than I do, I think). But, lack of sleep aside, I also know that I’m not very good at doing nothing. Every once in a while I get my computer privileges revoked from my husband (who admittedly is also a blogger, just not a daily blogger), and we do family things, and time seems to slow down and I get bored stupid. My perception of time is this: do nothing, time stops.

Now, relativity actually says exactly the opposite should happen. Like Buck Rogers waking up in the 21st century (hey, isn’t that now?), the fast moving intrepid over-achiever, will actually have their time move s-l-o-w-e-r compared to the rest of the world, and decades will spin away as they pay their bills in a spacecraft moving at near the speed of light.  Suffering through the pain of not-automatic bill pay, they may only perceive the passage of 5 minutes of 60 heartbeats a piece as journey to and from the most distance planets.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you are hanging out with a uber-powerful flashlight in your hand, watching the photons stream away at 299,792,458  m/s. As you, in your pre-Holiday daze, sit, you first you see the photons hit the moon and then Mars, and then the asteroids, as you watch minute by minute, hour by hour, as those photons make their journey (which really you would need a really big telescope to see, but let’s pretend). While you watch, your accountant flies by in his special IRS issued spacecraft going 299,792,457  m/s (which is less than the speed of light). As he flies past you on his way to the asteroids and back, your accountant will also see the photons of the flashlight going by at 299,792,458  m/s!

The only way you and the accountant can perceive the velocity of the light as being the same is if you don’t see  the passage of time being the same. Zipping along at 99.99999967% the speed of light (compared to you and your flashlight), the accountant’s wristwatch and heart slows to 1/12243.21148584654 of what you normally experience. In this way, every second he looks at the light – a second WAY longer than your second – he’ll see the light move its required 299,792,458 m. The distance he needs to see the photon travel defines his second. For every 5 minutes he procrastinates on doing your taxes, in his high-speed, slow-time space craft, 42.51 days will pass in your life, as Christmas and New Year’s race by and you worry that you won’t get your taxes back in time.

This isn’t just a matter of accountant on space craft hanging out watching the photons go buy and getting bored as he waits for them to go their requisite 299,792,458 m before he calls it a second. Everything slows down, including his life. In his frame of reference, his hair grows slower, his brain firers slower, and he ages slower. If he journeyed at this speed for 1 day, 33.5 years would pass for you, as you fought of potential audit as he orbited with all your financial papers.

According to relativity, the one constant in this vast universe we live in is the passage of light. Time does speed up and slow down, depending on how fast you move relative to light. This also leads to other neat side effects like perceived lengths contract and masses grow. The best set of thought experiments I know of to understand this can be found over on George Smoot’s class website.

It also means that the faster you move, the worse your situation gets, because everyone actually sees you getting less done in the same amount of time. The only way to get more minutes (and gray hair) out of your day is to launch everyone else in the world (along with your accountant) on a space craft and send them in orbit while you get your choirs done!

Temporarily getting ride of everyone by launching them on a rocket… Why does that seem to be the answer to so many questions?

And why is the one constant in life a massless particle?

Anyway… I should head to bed so I can work on rounding out my last week of classes. I’m done with actual teaching, and am down to one review session and 4 more exams to give and grade (only 1 remains to write at least).

As the year winds to a close, and the tax year winds to a close, don’t forget your charitable giving. If you don’t want uncle same to have your money, give it to someone you like who is tax deductible. I’m not, but donations to Astronomy Cast are tax deductible through my University, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific all tax deductible, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent has had a rough year and could use your help refilling their coffers. If your company strong arms you into giving, don’t forget that you can name any non-profit as a target. I don’t know about you, but if the government is only going to give 0.53% of their budget to NASA, I’m going to do some tax deductible offsets to things I value.


  1. Essential Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels/Series » Blog Archive » Go Faster to Go Slower - December 6, 2007

    […] Go Faster to Go SlowerBy pamelaIn his frame of reference, his hair grows slower, his brain firers slower, and he ages slower. If he journeyed at this speed for 1 day, 33.5 years would pass for you, as you fought of potential audit as he orbited with all your …Star Stryder – http://www.starstryder.com […]

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