Absolute Time is an Illusion: Travel into the Future with Time Dilation!
We tend to think of time as absolute. Ten minutes for me is the same as 10 minutes for you, is the same as 10 minutes for your neighbor, your best friend and your grandpa. Sure, 10 minutes might feel fast or slow some days—nothing is slower than 10 minutes at the DMV or faster than a 10-minute nap. But perception and quantity aren’t the same, and 10 minutes is still 10 minutes.
Or is it?
As it turns out, time might not actually be the same for everyone. The concept of time dilation is something that’s been explored since Einstein’s day, but it’s only now that we’re really starting to understand what it means to live in a world where time isn’t absolute.
Defining absolute time vs. time dilation
Absolute time is what you read on a clock. We view it as being either right or wrong. Everyone in Chicago agrees it’s 3:00pm, while everyone in London agrees it’s 9:00pm. It moves at one speed and cannot be manipulated.
Absolute time controls our daily schedules. Let’s say you want to grab dinner with friends this weekend. If you tell them to meet you at the restaurant at 6:30pm, you’re assuring everyone will arrive at the same time.
Time dilation is a bit more complicated. It lets you change how you perceive the passage of time. Sure, everyone in your time zone might agree on what time it is. But the time displayed on your phone is different than your internal clock. Time can feel like it’s speeding up or slowing down, and no one controls your perception except you.
Another factor of time dilation is your awareness of time. The more you think about how much time is passing, the slower time will feel. Do you ever sit in class or a meeting and think it’s never going to end? Then stop watching the clock and pay attention! On the contrary, let’s say you’re focused on watching a suspenseful movie or cheering on a football team. Now, time will move a lot faster for you.
That last point is important to consider. If you love watching football, time will fly by. If you don’t, the game will take forever to finish. This is one reason why everyone perceives time differently. We are unique individuals; our internal clocks can’t all be the same.
How does time dilation work (in a nutshell)?
While perception of time is all in your head, time dilation has been proven to exist in the physical world. Actually, it has a lot to do with gravity.
The closer an object is to Earth, the slower time passes for it. This means objects higher in the atmosphere experience time sped up by comparison. Think about space exploration movies like Interstellar. The main character embarks on a galactic journey, but when he returns to Earth, his daughter has become decades older than himself. This is because of time dilation.
Without getting into the literal physics of time dilation – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – it can be simplified by saying that time passes at different rates for objects moving at different speeds. The faster you travel, the slower time goes for you. It’s the fundamental idea behind the theory of time travel.
Wait, does this mean time travel is possible?
Sort of. But if you’re thinking of building a DeLorean, you’d be wrong. If time machines existed today, they wouldn’t be like how they are in the movies. Note that time dilation only refers to forward progression. In other words, you wouldn’t be able to go into the past.
According to the University of Sussex in England, this is what time machines would actually be like:
“Whilst time dilation does allow you to travel in time one could therefore build a time machine. However, that machine would only be able to travel forward in time and not backwards in time. If you took a journey into the future, you would be unable to return.”
Time travel would be used to cover vast distances among the stars. Right now, technology isn’t capable of sending people outside of our solar system. It would take thousands of years with current space crafts, and obviously, humans don’t live that long.
The answer seems to be a space craft that’s unbelievably faster than anything we’ve ever seen. That way, astronauts can travel to untouched corners of space and make it back home in their lifetime.
It’ll be a while before time machines are as commonplace in households as microwaves or televisions. But you can still harness the power of time dilation. Keep that in mind when you’re in a meeting that just needs to go faster!