Early Father’s Day…a dilation of time

We “celebrated” Father’s Day earlier this evening. A day early. We are a bit peculiar this way. We prefer to do things like this at our own leisure and before the crowds or rush explodes. We went out for dinner, came back to eat cake at my parent’s house, and sat afterwards in a culinary coma. I ate so much. Conversation was disjointed and tired but I suddenly felt inspired to explain the awesome, spellbinding experimental proof of the relativity of time and its scientifically tested proof. This is baffling to everyone who isn’t familiar with classic experiments designed and repeated demonstrating the veracity of Albert Einstein’s Special and General theories of relativity. This is overwhelming because we don’t normally perceive Time as a relative measure. Our concept of time is vaguely immutable, but that is a concept that lives only in our minds. Dwelling as we do in this plodding, simple 3-dimensional world of first-hand human time, breaches of normal speeds and velocities don’t usually filter their way into our earthly comprehension. We walk along the sidewalk at 7 mph, we drive at anywhere from 30 to 80 mph in our cars…these speeds are muted and trivial as contrasted with the cosmic pace of light and gravity which truly elicit the invisible reality we cannot see or fathom. You are trying to convince people that Time, as a measure, as an element of reality, is fluid. It changes. It fluctuates. One second is not always one second, and one second is not definable consistently in all situations. This is counter-intuitive, isn’t it? But I was trying to tell them at our post-dinner conversation earlier that this is the case and has been amply demonstrated by scientists.

When I explain the Hafele–Keating experiment to most people, one can note as their ears perk up momentarily (if they are even listening). The experiment took place in 1971 when Joseph C. Hafele, who taught physics at Washington University in St Louis, and Richard E. Keating, an astronomer from the United States Naval Observatory, set out to test Einstein’s theories of relativity by using ultra-precise atomic clocks as part of an elaborate global experiment involving 5 of the clocks. The theories of relativity under the microscope were the General theory which asserted that time runs faster (as measured by clocks) when the gravitational potential is less, ie, when the clocks are furthest from the surface of the earth (where conversely, they run the slowest due to the presence of the strongest gravitational force). Additionally, the experiment also set out to test the Special theory’s hypothesis that a clock moving at a speed which exceeded the frame of reference’s speed (observer) would in fact, run slower in comparison, while a clock whose velocity was less than the frame of reference (observer) clock would run faster. Hafele and Keating’s experiment involved placing the 4 atomic clocks aboard a commercial airliner. The clocks flew 2 legs which would take them completely around the circumference of the earth. One flight, eastward, and the other, westward. The control/frame of reference/observer clock was another atomic clock housed at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC.

Based on Einstein’s theories of relativity, scientific predictions stated that, 1) regarding General relativity, both clocks, since they would be flying at roughly the same altitude far above the surface of earth, would run slightly faster than the control clock back on earth, and 2) in regards to Special relativity, that the clock flying eastward, since it was flying in the same direction as the earth’s rotation, would be moving faster than the laboratory clock, and thus “lose” time in comparison, which essentially meant it would run slower than the clock on the ground, and that the clocks, when travelling westward and thus against the earth’s revolution, were said to be moving slower in comparison to the laboratory clock, would “gain” time relatively, meaning they would run faster than the earthbound clock.

When the experiment was complete, measurements were carefully noted and compared, and the results demonstrated that the eastward clock’s cumulative rate (of gravitational and kinematic [speed] times) lost 59 nanoseconds (ran slower) compared to the laboratory control clock. The clocks as measured on the westward trek gained 273 combined nanoseconds compared to the earthbound clock (ie, the clocks ran “faster”.)

This was conclusive proof, which was repeated various times in the future as technology and measurements became more precise, that Einstein’s theories of General and Special relativity did in fact confirm the principle of “time dilation.” This was a landmark achievement in physics because previous proofs of relativity rested in measurements of particles and their lifespans as contrasted with their velocities. This was the first time clocks were used to verify Einstein’s theories, a technology far beyond the reach of scientists when he was alive.

The phrase “time dilation” is the most intriguing one for me. We don’t think of time as a tangible, malleable object subject to external or environmental distortion. It runs contrary to our instinctual comprehension of time which is to view it as an ethereal, invisible demarcation of our reality. The realization that time has such a concrete, intertwined and physical role in our existence that exceeds the falsity of clocks is astounding! Not only is our cosmic perspective muted by our minute physical presence, it is also distorted by the microscopic speck of time we call a “lifetime.”