Category Archives: TimeTuesday

Uncovering Time

Sulu and Uhura

George Takei with Nichelle Nichols in a wonderfully flamboyant moment of Sulu as a swashbuckler.
Image courtesy of

Have I told you guys how much I love my kids?
Last night we watched this episode of the original Star Trek series (we’re taking them back through the originals.) It was a fun episode, it’s the one where Sulu (+George Takei) runs around with a pointed fencing foil like a swashbuckler, Spock (Leonard Nemoy) has his first bout with human emotions surfacing, and so on. The part that really hit my kids was the end, when they travel back in time by 71 hours because of a theoretical engineering solution to the problem of their falling into a planet.

When I pointed out to them that the Enterprise crew would be going back to before they had originally arrived at the planet, the eight year old asked, “Well, why don’t they just warn themselves not to go down to the planet?”

Oh ho ho. Well, what would have happened indeed? They (6 and 8) quickly grasped that this would be impossible, as the events that lead to their travel back in time were directly related to their landing on the planet. (They came to this conclusion on their own, so I just named it for them: paradox) Then they started to debate what could be done when going back in time, it was a great conversation. For kids that watch a lot of Doctor Who, I’m surprised this never came up. I guess the division of ‘fantasy time travel’ as opposed to ‘science fiction time travel’ is one that could be cited here. At any rate, they now have a functional understanding of temporal paradox and the Lorenz’s butterfly effect.


Dog Days

365.25 days.

The length of one year, right? But what is a year? It’s a completely arbitrary unit of time, it just happens to make sense because we are here on Earth. It is a frame of reference that we’ve divided into months, weeks (and from there the rotation of the Earth is a day divided into hours, minutes and seconds.) None of this makes any sense if you are somewhere other than Earth, and why how the Earth moves around the sun and not the lunar cycles?

Take Mars for example: 686.971 earth days to a ‘year’, and 24 earth hours 39 earth minutes and 35 earth seconds to a ‘day’. Think about that for a moment while we talk about dogs.

I think it is pretty common knowledge that dogs age about 7 years to every one for a human. At first this may seem to mean very little, but imagine if our entire lifespan as a human was wrapped up in 1/7 the time we normally have. What if we had winters that lasted several years rather than several months? What if we had summers that spanned the entirety of our puberty, and had to build our careers in the fall? Considering perception is such a large part of our reality, how would that affect our life?

You may not know it, but time is not the same everywhere. Gravity affects time in some really strange ways (c.f. gravitational time dilation) and as we venture further out into space this is going to become a big issue. One of the things that will have to become a reality for a unified advance in that front is the development of a ‘standard of time.’ We’re already seeing it happen here and now, with the International Dateline and Grand Meridian Time. These concepts will have to be expanded, sometimes with a sacrifice of accuracy, for us to continue to function as a species, but the value of collaborating as a species far outweighs local accuracy. Community is more important than perfection. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is strange that an absolute truth, the great, supernatural cores of reality are so often discarded (or condemned) for contemporary scientific discovery. Particularly when the two do not conflict. These truths are the things that make us human, they are the very things that unite us.

TimeTuesday: We’re All Time Travelers

Greenwich clock, appropriate for a time post including the DoctorI have this theory, it might really mess with your head, but it’s worth thinking about. We’re all time travelers. Well, maybe that isn’t a fair way to put it. We’re all actually time travelling machines.

One of the problems we have in modern science is a definition of what time is. I’m so enthralled by this problem that I’d like to dedicate Tuesdays to trying to figure it out (bonus points if you know the literary reference beyond the alliteration.) So here’s the basic premise I’m working with, it comes from math more than science but it’s a good working model.

A single point requires no units, thus it is unit^0 (we’ll use meters from here on out, just for clarity, so: m^0) This is fine, and when you realize that a single point is non-defined without any form of measurement, you put it on a line. There are numbers to the left and right of it, and this makes sense. It’s more than some, less than others. That line gives the point value, and thus we have a length (m^1). When you want to frame the value of that line segment, you put it on a plane. The plane can then be used (m^2 found with the formula: l*w) to find area, and to valuate it, you put it in a 3d space. To do something with the 3d space you measure volume (m^3 found: l*w*d) but then what? What is m^4 as a physical reality? Is it just an abstraction?

To determine this, I’d like to propose a look at Mythbusters.
What is being discussed in this video is a measurement of surface area covering a span of time. The results are interesting, but when you consider each drop of rain is also moving, basically we have a mathematical nightmare. So, it isn’t so much that we can’t determine m^4, but that it’s just way to big for us to compute (or at least write a handy formula for.) Or is it?

The TARDIS from Doctor Who, a simple blue police call box?Enter the TARDIS. If you don’t know Doctor Who I’ll explain. The TARDIS is Doctor Who’s time travelling box, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space (yeah it violates the rules of time, so of course grammar is not a concern with the acronym.) Now, when you think of time traveller, Doctor Who might be the first type to come to mind, and surely a guy that can pop in and out of any situation he wants is pretty impressive. But we are time travelers in a much different way. We’re actually a lot more like the TARDIS (bigger on the inside.)

See, we travel through time by default. We happen to see this travel as a straight line, but it isn’t so much straight as it is inexorable. We are more than just what is here and now. Our physical (m^3) self is only the outside of the box, on the inside we are much more than that. We are a collection of our experiences. We are, essentially, a Time And Relative Dimension In Space. We move through space in much the same way, actually, because the space around us is also moving through time. Think about a spot you grew up in, and when you return it isn’t the same. You may say, ‘but we can travel in all sorts of different directions.’ To which I say, ‘but we are always moving from here to there.’ Very similar problem with time, until we break the rules on that problem by relying on past experience. Now, if you can find that neat equation to sup up m^4, you’ll probably be a millionaire in no time. Until then, embrace your time travel machine self.