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Can you slow time down?

February 18, 2009 on 7:04 pm | In Physics, relativity |

We’ve talked before about how you can make time around you speed up. Go into a spaceship, travel close to the speed of light, and come back to where you started. When you land your spaceship, you will have aged “normally” for you, but everyone who remained on Earth (even your identical twin) will be much older.

This is because the speed of light is the same everywhere and at all times in the Universe. If you travel fast, and by fast I mean close to the speed of light, time for you has to slow down relative to time for people who are at rest. So when you move close to the speed of light, travel back to Earth and come to rest here, you’ll be younger than people who’ve been on Earth the whole time. You are effectively speeding the time of everyone around you up.

Well, reader Tony writes in and asks the following related question:

If I was in a rocket and set a course and speed that countered all motion, including Earth, Solar, Galactic, and Universe, would time then speed up?

Well, the Earth moves around the Sun, the Sun moves around the Galaxy, and the Galaxy hurtles through space. So could you, if you found out how quickly everything was moving and counteracted it, could you effectively slow the time of everyone around you down?

The answer appears to be yes, but not by nearly as much as Neo here can. The problem is, for any measurement of time to make sense, people need to be in the same place at two different points in time. So whatever you do, you need to come back to the place you started at. If you want to do this for the planet Earth, it’s only the Earth’s movement that you can counter.

The Earth moves around the Sun at roughly 30 kilometers/second (67,000 miles per hour), which is pretty fast, but only about 0.01% of the speed of light. So if you sat in Earth’s orbit and turned on your rocket thrusters so that you stayed in exactly the same position while the Earth continued to go around the Sun, time would continue to pass slightly quicker for you than for people still on Earth! They’re moving at 30 km/s, while you’re there, stationary, at 0 km/s. When the Earth finally catches you, though, one year later, what does your clock say?

Your clock is off. By 0.16 seconds. Yes, that’s right, you spent an entire year and you found that your clock was off by 0.16 seconds thanks to all of your efforts. Want to know what’s even worse? Time didn’t slow down on Earth relative to you. After all that, you’re still 0.16 seconds younger than Earth. Turns out that because you left Earth and returned to Earth, the only velocity that matters is your velocity relative to Earth.

So I’m sorry, Tony, because your question is a good one and made a lot of sense. But it turns out the Universe doesn’t work that way, and that if you leave Earth and return to Earth, you can’t make time pass faster for you than it does on Earth. Pretty sad, but hopefully now you know not only what the answer is, but a little bit about why.


20 Comments »

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  1. First no warp speed and now no time travel. :(

    Professor Siegel, you are a bundle of Buzz-kill.

    Comment by dave — February 19, 2009 #

  2. Wouldn’t speeding up time for yourself be akin to moving faster than the speed of light when viewed from the perspective of world lines through space-time?

    Comment by benhead — February 19, 2009 #

  3. Almost, but not quite. It would be akin to moving with a small (sub-light) but *imaginary* speed, which is also, you know, impossible.

    Comment by ethan — February 19, 2009 #

  4. I can imagine the impossible!

    Comment by Brian — February 19, 2009 #

  5. i can slow down time and i know how if you can go faster than the speed of time you will stop in time and nothing will move and there will have to be something come along and move you but when you get out of the glitch everybody else will be diffrent even dead but you will remain the same becouse there is nothign faster than the speed of time and the bad thing is that you can only go forward!!!!!

    Comment by thomas — June 10, 2009 #

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  10. Sir…by this time dilation ..can we provide a solution for the agein problem.????

    Comment by Aravind — May 9, 2010 #

  11. sir,
    what is the link between time dilation and twin paradox??

    Comment by anupama — September 27, 2010 #

  12. Hi, i have been thinking about the time relativity the other day,i think that you guy are making a fattal mistake thinnking that time has some think to do with the speed of light. if any one has any idea of what i am talking feel free to email me and do a little chatting about it, maby we can come up with somthink. my email:
    mic1230@mail.ru

    Comment by Mitch — October 8, 2010 #

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  17. @lexus. Not all of the comments are true, but time dilation is real and proven with atomic clocks and many MANY experiments.

    Something else that was not mentioned in the “stay still scenario” is that the gravitational influence of Earth is LESS in space and therefore time would go faster for the spaceling compared to earthlings. Gravitational fields influence time as well.

    Comment by JD — August 29, 2012 #

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