Why I Never Know What Time It Is

It’s always fun watching Richard Feder (of Fort Lee, NJ) as he puts two and two together. He gets a gleam in his eye and one corner of his mouth twitches. On a good day with the wind behind him I’ve seen his total get as high as 6½. “I wanna get back to that ‘everybody has their own time‘ monkey‑business where if you’re moving fast your clock slows down. What about the stardates on Star Trek? Those guys go zooming through space at all different angles and speeds. How do they keep their calendars in synch?”

Trekkie and Astronomy fan Al takes the bait. “Artistic license, Mr Feder. The writers can make anything happen, subject to budgets and producer approval. The first Star Trek series, they just used random four‑digit numbers for stardates. That was OK because the network aired the episodes in random order anyway so no‑one cared about story arc continuity. Things were more formal on Captain Picard’s Enterprise, as you’d expect — five‑digit stardates, first digit always ‘4‘ for 24th Century, thousands digit was ‘1‘ for season one, ‘2‘ for season two and so on. Working up the other way, the digit right of the decimal point was tenths of a standard day, the units place counted days within an episode and the tens and hundreds they just picked random numbers.”

“I suppose that’s what they did, but how could they make it work? You guys yammer on about time dilation. Say a ship’s running at Warp Whoop‑de‑doo, relativity should slow its calendar to a crawl. You couldn’t get a whole fleet into battle position when some of the ships had to get started years ahead of time. And that’s just the dilation slow-down, travel time’s on top of that.”

“Travel time measured how, Mr Feder, and from where?”

“Well, there you go, Cathleen, that’s what I’m talking about!”

“You know that Arthur C Clarke quote, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic‘? The Enterprise crew’s always communicating with ‘sub‑space radio’, which sure looks like magic to me. They could send sync pulses through there along with chatter. When you drop out of warp space, your clocks catch the pulses and sync up, I suppose.”

“There’s a deeper issue than that, guys.”

“What’s that, Sy?”

“You’re talking like universal time is a thing, which it isn’t. Hasn’t been since Einstein’s Special Relativity used Minkowski’s math to stir space and time together. General Relativity scrambles things even worse, especially close to a strong gravity center. You remember about gravity forcing spacetime to curve, right? The curvature inside a black hole’s event horizon gets so tight that time rotates toward the geometric center. No, I can’t imagine what that looks like, either. The net of it, though, is that a black hole is a funnel into its personal future. Nothing that happens inside one horizon can affect anything inside another one so different holes could even have different time rates. We’ve got something like 25000 or more stellar black holes scattered through the Milky Way, plus that big one in the center, and that’s just one galaxy out of billions. Lots of independent futures out there.”

“What about the past, Sy? I’d think the Big Bang would provide a firm zero for time going forward and it’s been one second per second since then.”

“Nup. Black holes are an extreme case. Any mass slows down time in its vicinity, the closer the slower. That multi‑galaxy gravitational lens that lets us see Earendel? It works because the parts of Earth‑bound light waves closest to the center of mass see more time dilation than the parts farther away and that bends the beam toward our line of sight.”

“Hey, that reminds me of prisms bending light waves.”

“Similar effect, Vinnie, but the geometry’s different. Prisms and conventional lenses change light paths abruptly at their surfaces. Gravitational lenses bend light incrementally along the entire path. Anyhow, time briefly hits light’s brakes wherever it’s near a galaxy cluster, galaxy or anything.”

“So a ship’s clock can fidget depending on what gravity it’s seen recently?”

“Mm-hm. Time does ripples on its ripples. ‘Universal Time‘ is an egregious example of terminology overreach.”

~~ Rich Olcott