Time: Part 2—Time & Physics

This is part 2 of 7 in a series based on material in Ken Boa’s book God, I Don’t Understand. Other parts in the series are available using the buttons at the bottom of this post.


Traditional concepts of time have suffered severe wounds at the hands of modern physics.

Sir Isaac Newton thought time was something absolute, flowing “equably without relation to anything external.” This meant that what we call now is not only our now but also the now for the entire universe. 1 Things that occupy the same point in Newton’s absolute time are completely simultaneous.

Albert Einstein, however, discarded this idea of absolute time in his special and general theories of relativity. Einstein held that man’s sense of time, like his sense of color, is a form of perception. It’s therefore subjective and intuitive.

Newton thought time was absolute; Einstein discarded this idea in his special and general theories of relativity.

We try to objectify time by measuring it with clocks and calendars, but we should remember that all clocks relate to the motion of our solar system. Lincoln Barnett notes:

What we call an hour is actually a measurement in space—an arc of 15 degrees in the apparent daily rotation of the celestial sphere.2

Time is always dependent on the system of reference.

Time, then, is subjective and relative, but this doesn’t mean time doesn’t exist. Time is real, and it’s definitely affected by gravitational fields and velocity.

All clocks relate to the motion of our solar system. … Time, then, is subjective and relative, but this doesn’t mean time doesn’t exist.

One of the most fascinating implications of special relativity is that physical processes go slower in objects when they travel at high speeds. Time would actually expand for the person who could somehow travel close to the speed of light.3

Consider this: A two-month round-trip to the center of our Milky Way Galaxy (made possible by velocities a little closer to the speed of light) would be a journey of 54,000 light-years to earthlings. The space-time travelers would return to an earth about 60,000 years older than when they left! If people on earth could somehow view the travelers on TV, they would have to watch for about a month and a half to get the equivalent of 10 seconds on the spaceship. It would take days to detect any movement at all. But from the astronaut’s perspective, people on earth would be moving so fast that they would be invisible blurs.

Want to read more about science and faith? Check out Ken Boa’s Science Library.

A Thousand Years as a Day

This illustration is particularly interesting when connected with 2 Peter 3:8:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

In this relativity example, one day with the space traveler is the equivalent of 1,000 years on earth, and 1,000 years on earth is the equivalent of one day with the space travelers. But God isn’t limited as we are to one time framework or the other. What is so mysterious is how God can move through both frameworks at once!

God isn’t limited as we are to one time framework.

We can carry this relativistic time travel idea even further. Imagine a trip to the nearest galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, a round-trip of approximately five million light-years. Even this would be feasible if a ship could move a little closer to the velocity of light than in the previous two examples. When the voyagers returned in a matter of years or even months, the earth would be about three million years older!

But what if the ship could actually travel at the velocity of light? Theoretically, time would stand still. The smallest moment of time for the travelers could be the equivalent of billions of years in the universe. No one really knows what would happen in this case, because even relativistic physics may not be sufficient for this. But the implications of such an idea for time, teleportation, and the universe are astounding.

The Effect of Speed and Matter

What would happen if a material object could move faster than light? Many say that time would run backward, making time trips into the past possible. But the idea of going faster than light is a real problem because, according to relativity, “no material object can move with a speed that equals or exceeds the speed of light.”4 One of the reasons for this is that the inertial mass of moving objects increases with speed and would become infinite at the speed of light.5 But this doesn’t mean that things having no mass couldn’t exceed this barrier (what would be the “speed” of thought or prayer?).

One final thing about time and physics: Time isn’t only affected by speed; it’s also affected by matter. Einstein’s general theory of relativity says, in effect, that matter produces gravitational fields that in turn affect the properties of space and time. Time intervals vary with the gravitational field, so that a clock on the sun would run slightly slower than a clock on earth. Gravitational fields can even have the effect of curving space-time.

We can see from this overview of time and physics that the universe we live in is amazingly strange and complicated.6 All scientists (whether they admit it or not) must exercise faith in believing many things about this creation that are beyond comprehension.7

The traditional conception of time is still good enough for most purposes.

On the other hand, we should remember that the traditional conception of time is still good enough for most purposes. Our God-given comprehension of time is very workable. In spite of relativity, the concept of a simultaneous now has meaning to everyone—including Einstein.

Series Navigation<< Time: Part 1—The Mystery of TimeTime: Part 3—The Inadequacy of Conventional Views >>

Footnotes

  1. Edward F. Hills, Space Age Science (Des Moines, IA: The Christian Research Press, 1964), 122.
  2. Lincoln Barnett, The Universe and Dr. Einstein, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1948), 46–47. In a way, Aristotle anticipated this idea when he suggested that if other heavens exist they must have their own time, meaning there would be many times at the same time.
  3. This idea has led to some interesting hypothetical space trips. James Reid, for instance, described (in God, the Atom, and the Universe) a trip to the star Alpha Centauri. With modern rocket speeds, a round-trip to this star would require centuries. If the relativity of time didn’t hold true, this trip would be too long even if the spacecraft could travel at or near the speed of light. But because of relativity, the trip would only take one month for the travelers if their ship had a velocity of 99.995 percent of the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). But during this one month period, people on earth would have aged about 10 years! Under these conditions time would flow at two different rates at the same “time.” Thus, the people on the spaceship would be time travelers as well as space travelers. In one month they would have journeyed 10 years into the future with respect to earth.
  4. George Garrow, One, Two, Three … Infinity (New York: Viking Press, 1947), 105.
  5. Another nasty theoretical effect of exceeding the speed of light is that time would be converted into space and space into time (Hills, Space Age Science, 32).
  6. Truth in science or any other discipline is never determined by a majority vote; the history of science is strewn with discarded theories that were once held by the majority. Some scientists argue it would be a mistake to assume too dogmatically that current theories won’t need to be substantially revised or discarded. This minority movement claims there are serious flaws in general relativity (equivalence of gravity and acceleration), special relativity (the speed of light as an unchanging constant), matter-energy interconversion, Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and current cosmological theories (particularly warped space, Stephen Hawking’s unified concepts, the big bang, etc.), since they violate the first and second laws of thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, and many of the other well established laws of science.
  7. For instance, as Reid writes, “At the speed of light one would weigh more than the universe, but be too small to measure, and would live forever, in no time!” (in God, the Atom, and the Universe).