A Short Essay Concerning Time Dilation

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The human race at its twilit zenith with all resolved and all known save its purpose and its origins.
A great ship of sublime proportions and of awesome power – at once set free by the laws of nature and yet also chained by them.

A crew with unequaled talent, but questionable aspirations – who else would board such a ship? Who else would coldly abandon – for it can be no other way but coldly – their family and future to journey to the ends and beginnings of the universe in lifetimes all their own?

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Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity states that an object moving at velocities approaching the speed of light experiences time more slowly. What are mere moments, days, or years to it are minutes, months, or lifetimes to the relatively motionless. To travel near the speed of light is not to travel in time, it to travel with time.

This concept – time dilation – is, by the way, fact. So real is it that the chronometers on fast-moving global positioning satellites orbiting the Earth are specially designed to tick more slowly so that their relative speeds do not cause them to go out of sync with clocks on the Earth’s surface. So real is it that clocks on two airplanes which takeoff and fly in different directions land with different times. So real is it that the wristwatches on astronauts on the International Space Station return with missing seconds. Where did they go? Nowhere: seconds never were, are, or will be. Measurements of time are not time’s measurements. Measurements of time are our measurements.

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The great ship on which the crew will travel is immense beyond countenance and scale. It must be. Its method of movement counter-intuitively requires that it be so. Its great forward particle collector, designed to scoop up stray hydrogen atoms in space, which will then be blasted out the aft end of the ship, is a great dish measuring many miles across. The vessel’s heart – small by comparison – is a large smooth cylinder that conceals a massive electromagnetic chamber. Within the chamber, tremendous forces compress the collected hydrogen atoms until they fuse together as within a star, unleashing tremendous amounts of energy – energy which is then projected out the rear of the ship – a fanned out circle resembling the end of a rocket. The directed energy then irreversibly propels the vessel forward trough space and time.

Assembled in space over many years, the spacecraft is the child of a relatively new age of peace and productivity, born to a parent world and people who have attained and seen all but everything.

The ship’s purpose is at once magnificent, yet mostly meaningless. Due to time dilation, the explorers can never return to the home they left. To explore the whole of the universe and return will take their lifetimes, but by the time the explorers might again see their sun, they would only find a grave – billions of lifetimes will have been lived on Earth and our star will have long ago shone its last light.

Yet the ship’s ‘meaningless’ purpose will not be entirely without merit – the discoveries of their mission will not only fall on dead ears. After the ship has launched, the crew will send messages that will recount their journey to those on Earth. They will tell of wonders beyond compare: newly born stars, vast nebulae, colliding planets, black holes, and, perhaps, the rise and fall of alien civilizations.

But by the time these messages arrive home, they will effectively be letters from the future past. Due to time dilation and the vast light-years separating them from Earth, the crew’s communiqués will arrive at intervals which will grow exponentially more distant from one another, at first months, then years, then centuries. At home, great throngs of people will gather when they are due to receive a new dispatch, breathlessly awaiting news and new revelations from the great journey. The missives will progressively provide greater glimpses of the vast ‘world’ beyond their own. In these glimpses, they will revel, until there remains no one left to witness them.

And so it is, that the ship, its crew, and its beautiful, yet tragic mission must be the product of a poetic race – one that is perhaps more in love with its own ideas, its self-made promises, and its ambitions than it is with actually making them real.

William Handke is a writer and granola bar goober living in Minneapolis.

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