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It's All Relative

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Both physicist Brian Greene and neurologist Oliver Sacks explain the very strange, very subjective nature of time.

The elasticity of experience is expressed by sound artist Ben Rubin in a piece he produced for The Next Big Thing. We include an excerpt on being in "the zone." His story features track stars: Shawn Crawford, Amy Acuff, Brendon Couts, Jason Pyrah, Derrek Atkins, Jon Drummond, and Larry Wade.

Comments [9]

Chris Moschini from St Petersburg, Florida

Great show! I think you guys might enjoy the latest chapters in our understanding of time.

You noted that it's strange that time is local - to the observer, per se, but really to the atom. We know that each atom has multiple dimensions - position x, y, z, direction, spin. It turns out time is just another dimension of the atom. (One common misunderstanding of String Theory is that there are "alternate dimensions" where I'm you and you're me; this is incorrect. The ~13 dimensions are dimensions like x and time.)

So you noticed that seems strange, that time would be built-in to the atom, but there's another thing that's strange, and it starts to come together. Relativity includes that as you attempt to accelerate past the speed of light, time slows down until you reach it, and time stops. It is the universal speed limit. Why is that? And why is time so tightly interwound with speed?

One more oddity. Photons always move at the speed of light, and they do so regardless of direction. That means 2 photons can leave the same point at the same time in opposite directions. If you were to somehow follow either photon, and you were also traveling at the speed of light, and measured either's speed - they'd both come out as traveling at the speed of light. This, despite the fact that if you measure a bus passing you at 60mph when you're moving 30mph, you'd see the difference - 30mph.

So let's bring that all together. We think of the normal state of the universe as sitting still - moving at 0mph. If we shift our thinking to the native speed of the universe being the speed of light, it starts to make a lot of sense. Let's take the oddity of the bus at 60mph vs 30mph. If we were both traveling 0, and one measured the other, we'd be unsurprised to see 0mph in our measurement. The base speed of the universe is the speed of light. We see the speed of light as the measure of the photon's speed, regardless of our speed, for the same reason we expect to see 0 when we're both sitting at rest.

And now to add one more exciting layer: The Higgs. Then we'll come back to the oddity of time.

The Higgs confers mass on an atom, but mass is really our measure of Inertia. The Higgs confers inertia. The reason it's harder for an astronaut to push something heavy in space, is all those Higgs Bosons in that heavy thing's atoms are dragging on the Higgs Field. The astronaut is overcoming that Higgs force, trying to push it. But the astronaut isn't the only one affected by that Higgs drag.

The Higgs is what slows things down to slower than the native speed of the universe, the speed of light. Photons have no Higgs, and so they're free to always move at the speed of light. And that also means time is always frozen for them.

So really, the Higgs confers the experience of time upon an atom.

Cool, huh?

Jun. 23 2015 12:13 PM

Like Aaron, I was interested in learning more about these disorders and I can't seem to find the medical names are for each of them.

Apr. 20 2013 10:28 AM

Please pass this on to Dr. Sacks,

I'll share with you a more translatable way to speak of people "going at different speeds" from one another, and how we got to it.

My friend, and then roommate Ron is fast. Catlike, freak you out, actual ninjitsu fast. Not only that, but he has high perception skills and does "tricks" like carve plastic models while taking in all the details of what's on TV. We're film and sci-fi geeks. (Good enough to have made money. But that's another story.)

When the first season of LOST came out on DVD Ron got it and we all saw the episodes for the first time. This included an effect monster in it dubbed the black smoke. Ron said he saw images in it. We three roommates didn't see anything. After replaying it twice we didn't see anything but smoke FX. Not even in slow motion. Not for sure. Then he got the high-end player to loop the segment one frame at a time. A bear? A plane? A desk?... Indeed, there were grainy objects spinning trough the grey-black smoke tornado.

That was when Ron could get across what the world was like in his eyes. In a word- Framerate. He was seeing more frames per second than everyone. Most of us are VHS, he's DVD. More importantly, he was seeing- processing fast enough to time share his focus from what's in the center of his view, and thanks to the ninja practice (told you) accept input from every point peripherally. His framerate lets him "name that tune", sometimes in half a note. His frame rate lets him keep perfect time by thinking on how much time has passed, and catch the cup without spilling.

Think of reaction time as Framerate.

Nov. 17 2012 06:10 PM
ClareMac from Denver

AaronL from Cape Cod-

I think it's called Parkinsonism

Nov. 17 2011 01:05 AM
Martin Stirling from London, UK

I made a film inspired by this episode, loosely based on the story of Myron and Hester. You can see it it below:

Jan. 15 2011 07:34 AM
Cindy from Upstate New York

Yes, I was wondering about Myron's speech as well functioning normally though his perception of time was slowed down. Any explanation on that? Thanks.

Oct. 12 2010 08:44 AM
AaronL from Cape Cod

What are the medical names of the diseases involving Myron and Hester, respectively? Very interesting stuff. Would love to investigate more on the matter.

Also, the Eisntein link does not work.

Oct. 07 2010 03:38 PM

Fascinating! One thing I'd like to know: When Dr. Sacks is talking about his interaction with Myron, he makes no indication that Myron's speech was slowed. Certainly his speech wasn't slowed to the same degree as his physical movement, evidenced by his ability to converse. In contrast, Hester's speech was described as being so fast that it was impossible to even properly imitate it. If Myron is "absorbing and performing at drastically different tempos from the rest of humanity", why doesn't that affect his speech as well as his movement?

Sep. 27 2010 01:05 AM

I the link broken for "Play with Einstein's Theory of Relativity"? I can't get it to work.

Sep. 16 2010 01:51 AM

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