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

A Defective Story

It was an interesting knock at my office door — aggressive but feminine, with a hint of desperation.

“C’mon in, the door’s open.”

She wore a business suit that must have cost a month’s rent.  It fit her like it had been sewn on, and she had all the right sizes.  There was a button missing from the left sleeve.  On the other hand her left lapel bore a Star Trek badge, Security Section.

“What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“My name’s Victoria Baird, Mr Moire.  I’m CEO of ADastra, ‘media relations for the stars.’  I’ve been reading your posts, put two and two together, and thought I’d better drop in.”

“Well, it’s nice to know I’ve got readers.  Which posts caught your attention?”

“Several of them, but mostly this one,” pointing to a Web page on her smartphone.  It was my Breathing Space video.  “You show how gravitational waves fluctuate as they polarize local space.  They induce varying curvatures in different directions.  Curved space is mass, Mr Moire, but this curvature moves at lightspeed.  Hadn’t you noticed that?”

“It crossed my mind, yes, but when I thought about surfing a gravitational wave like ocean surfers do, I realized you’d have to get up to the wave’s speed to ride it.”

Spock’s Jellyfish starcraft,
as seen in the 2009 Star Trek film
(image from the video by Rob Morey)

“There’s more.  Are you familiar with that one-man starcraft that Ambassador Spock used in the 2009 Star Trek film?  The ship with the rotating after-section?”

“I did see ‘Baby Star Trek,’ yes.”

“Did you know that the starcraft’s official design designation is Jellyfish?”

“No, I hadn’t heard that.”

“Well, it is.  And you’ve written about Earth jellyfish, haven’t you, Mr Moire, and how their propulsion system is so efficient?”

I was getting a little tired of her aggressive questions, so I challenged her with one of my own.  “And you see a connection?”

“I do, and that’s why you have to help me, Mr Moire.  Can I trust you?”

“Secrets are my business, Miss Baird.  Uncovering them or covering them up, it’s all the same to me.”

“Maybe I need to let my hair down.”  She removed her cloche cap and her pointed ears sprang free.  “I need you to get me back to my crew.”

“Can’t you just call them on that communicator badge?”

“This is costume jewelry.  The spectrum here on Earth is so crowded that my real badge is useless at long range.  I’ve been looking for subtle signals in the media.  I thought your posts were just such a signal … but I can see you’re a local.”

“Guilty as charged.  I take it the connection you saw resembled the signal you sought?”

“Yes.  You’ve published two of the essential principles of the LaForge Drive.  The first was your displays of spatial curvature in motion.  The second was your description of how jellyfish move by stepping along a ladder of seawater vortices.

jellyfish-2“That’s what the LaForge Drive does, Mr Moire.  The counter-rotating blades are an osmium-hassium alloy, the densest substance known, and under tremendous compression.  Together their mass creates a complex pilot wave in the gravity field.  The spacecraft surfs on that waveform the way a jellyfish surfs on the eddies it creates.

“The wave’s phase velocity exceeds lightspeed by some enormous factor we’ve never been able to measure.  In fact, I’m here on Earth because I was on a research cruise to find if there’s a limit.  We … ran into a problem and I’m part of an away team sent to procure … something we need.”

“That trope’s been done to death, Miss Baird.  And besides, that design wouldn’t be practical.  What’s your real story?”

“What do you mean it’s not practical?”

“You can’t steer.  Pilot waves follow the most intense local spatial curvature, which means the craft will always home like a torpedo on the nearest large mass.”

Suddenly that badge chirped.  “We’ve recovered the detonator, Lieutenant.  Have you kept him from looking out the window?”

“Yes, his eyes have been on me the whole time.  Ready for beam-up.  Goodbye, Mr Moire, that was fun.”

Her form began to shimmer, twinkle … and disappeared.

“Don’t mention it.”

~~ Rich Olcott