Friday, September 16, 2011

Cosmic Speed Limit

Cosmic speed limit

Space Time continuum is something that we instinctively understand but only in a simple way. It is not incomprehensible that the familiar matter-energy world of our Universe is travelling on a linear time line. The concept of passing of time is familiar because we set things in history and measure time from sports cars performance to how many times our heart beats in a minute.But the mathematics behind the Spacetime continuum theory is another story, not so easy to grasp.

Humans and earthly time
The old geocentric world view of the writer of the first Creation story in Genesis is strongly present in the following majestic verses from the Bible:

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also."
Gen 1:14-17 NASV

And so it is. We humans, thanks to God's great planning, measure everyday time in terms of our local solar system, our concept of day and night follows the rotation of Earth on its axis, our months are moon months (more or less), our seasons we experience thanks to the little tilt of axis of our planet and our year is one round trip around the sun.

All this we know in modern days and yet we continue to use the ancient complicated 60 system for calculating seconds and minutes.

That patent office worker
Well, things were pretty clear and easy to understand in our earthly concept of time and somehow we all grasp from our everyday experience what is time-space continuum.

But then came that patent office worker Bern, at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property (ref).

Only using his brain he mentally located himself as an outsider looking at our familiar time-space continuum and other aspects of existence from a different point of view then ever before considered in such a way by humanity.  After figuring things out in his mind mathematically - for experiments his theories was not yet technically possible - he ended up with a "beautiful theory" known as the General and Special Theory of Relativity.


It all looked so simple to us common people before this theory became public knowledge. Today probably every human being going to a higher school upon this planet knows how Mr Einstein looks like when he does not comb his hair and many know about the Theory of Relativity.  Relatively few people have the mathematical ability and training needed in order to understand the Theory of Relativity in depth.

I am not ashamed to confess that I do not understand it. Some say that Einstein's brain was special and had more left-right bridges than ordinary homo sapiens sapiens. (Comparing to him, my left brain has nothing right in it and my right brain has nothing left in it.) Still, without knowing the physics and math I also live in relative time.

Cosmic speed limit

186,282.397 miles per second

Perhaps we can accept in our small brains the idea that time itself could be relative - whatever that means - and take it as a fact that time is somehow tied to our everyday knowledge of the matter-energy reality. But why Einstein wrote about a cosmic speed limit, the speed of light, and claimed that time itself slows down when the moving object approaches that speed?

Well, whatever the mathematical and physical explanation, cosmic speed limit makes space travel even less practical. We wish that tomorrow's technology would allow us to build spacecraft that travel at the speed of light. With such a vessel - and without the speed limit - our nearest star Alpha Centauri could be reached in about 4.5 years and the round trip would take only nine years. This is a small jump for mankind in comparison to a round-trip to Andromeda that would take five millions of years at light speed..

But alas, the cosmic policeman says that as the spacecraft approaches the speed of light limit then time itself slows down. The astronauts in the spacecraft would not feel a difference and their clocks would still follow our 24 hour rhythm (so I have understood). But the time frame would be much longer when seen from planet Earth.

After the happy crew safely returns from the nine year trip to Alpha Centauri and lands at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, they would return after many centuries have passed on the calendars of planet Earth.


SLAC Visitor Centre provides an excellent and compact explanation to general public of Special Theory of Relativity (ref)

"SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is home to a two-mile linear accelerator—the longest in the world. Originally a particle physics research center, SLAC is now a multipurpose laboratory for astrophysics, photon science, accelerator and particle physics research. Six scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for work carried out at SLAC and the future of the laboratory promises to be just as extraordinary."

The freshly published astounding results from CERN labs saying that neurons would beat the cosmic speed limit has been widely questioned. BBC news article by Science and Technology reporter James Palmer.

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