Time Is Relative!


Our General Physics Lab project that day was meant to help us lowly underclassman understand the coefficient of friction. It wasn’t very exciting; we had a ramp we could ratchet up and down, creating different angles, and a bunch of things to place on the ramp. We had already figured out there was no point setting anything on the ramp at a 45 degree angle; even the rubber-backed place mat wouldn’t stay put on a ramp that steep.

Then the door slammed open so hard it smacked into the wall, and a wild-eyed graduate student raced down the corridor between our lab tables. He vaulted onto the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, and grabbed the heavy clock that was set into the wall above.


This was the olden days, when electric clocks were wired to the wall through their backs; he had to yank several times before the clock came loose, trailing electrical wires and chunks of plaster. He held up the clock like Rafiki presenting baby Simba, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “TIME IS RELATIVE!” Then he leapt down from the desk, and ran out of the room, taking the clock with him.

Shocked, we couldn’t stop laughing; when the teacher came to check on us, (he knew the coefficient of friction wasn’t as funny as all that) we told him about the crazed grad student. He grinned and said, “That’s how I felt when I figured it out.”

Two years later, when I understood enough math to grasp the theory of relativity, the student’s crazy behavior finally made sense to me. The world I knew, the world I’d grown up in, wasn’t real. My senses were tracking time, but the time I experienced was an illusion, not an absolute at all. Time is dependent on our speed and acceleration. Time is profoundly affected by gravity. Time can be rotated. Time, in fact, is completely bizarre and weird and behaves in ways I’d never imagined. I found myself in awe of Einstein (but not for the first–or last–time!)


If you use your cell phone’s location feature, your phone is constantly receiving signals from at least four GPS satellites, and you rely on the theory of relativity daily. GPS satellites move over 8000 miles per hour faster than we do, so they experience a slower slow of time. The satellite clocks have to be calibrated to nullify the time difference, or GPS technology would be worthless. Siri (or Google Maps, depending on your preferred tech) couldn’t answer your questions about how to get to the nearest gas station, or tell you how far you were from your destination.

So the next time you ask your phone for directions, remember Albert Einstein deserves some of the credit for getting you where you want to go.



The Physics of Light, Gravity Waves and Ripples in Spacetime

NASA scientists held a Q&A on Facebook today, giving the FB community a chance to ask questions of the first scientists to observe ripples in spacetime–light and gravity waves.

tiny mirror cat

Many cats are frightened and aggressive toward the first mirror they see; some recognize their reflections aren’t enemies, and can be safely ignored. Our cat Tuesday’s aptitude for optics, the physics of light,  became obvious when we caught her using mirrors as a tool instead of ignoring them or fearing them.

Tuesday uses the mirror in the living room as a stalking aid. She positions herself  where the angle of reflection allows her to spot someone just before they round the corner and enter the room from one of two adjacent doors. She likes to time her ankle-pounces for maximum shock value.

She never ignores mirrors. She’s a beautiful cat, perhaps a touch vain. She will glance into mirrors as she passes, swish her tail, check her whisker alignment, admire the bright calico pattern of her fur, and walk on. When we are holding her and looking in the mirror, she looks into the eyes of our reflections when we speak, rather than turning around to face us.

Tuesday’s early life is a mystery; we do know she had an amazing owner who spent the first weeks of her life introducing her to a huge variety of situations; she is the least fearful cat we’ve ever met, and responds to new situations with curiosity rather than fear or aggression.  Perhaps that owner helped her understand that mirrors were safe, and Tuesday discovered how to use them to her advantage.

kitty mirror reflection

NASA scientists held a Q&A on Facebook today, giving the FB community a chance to ask questions of the first scientists to observe ripples in spacetime–light and gravity waves. (There were good questions at first, before the Tinfoil Hat Crowd arrived and started braying and bleating; to find the actual questions, check out NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center). One of the discoveries I find most intriguing is the fact that the gravity waves/ripples arrived BEFORE the light; photons were being caught up in the debris of the two neutron stars colliding and delayed! I didn’t even know that could happen! It’s as though the gravity waves were faster than light!


Tuesday is rolling her eyes at me; she obviously believes the gravity waves had a head start. It’s difficult for her, having to come up with tutorials for me; she did find a way to express her opinion by coming in a close second when I called her and Himeko into the kitchen for treats. She’s faster than the dog; she didn’t launch from her cozy bed until she heard the bag crinkle and knew the offer was genuine. Probably light was delayed for intelligent reasons as well.

An Interview with Published Feline Physicist, F.D.C. Willard, F.R.S.C.


There’s been a lot of media attention lately about the  cat who co-authored a prestigious physics paper (and was later published as the sole contributor in a French physics journal.)
Curious about his take on the situation, we tracked down his current incarnation in Akron, Ohio.
Now in his seventh life, the illustrious physicist Felis Domesticus Chester (F.D.C.) Willard has graciously granted us an interview to discuss his published works, his theories, and why he turned down the prestigious position of Physics Professor at Michigan State University.
The lovely and accomplished F.D. Tuesday has volunteered to serve as an interpreter.


Tuesday: F.D.C., were you surprised when your companion human, Jack Hetherington, listed you as co-author of the prestigious paper,  “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc 3He”?

F.D.C. Willard: Pleased, but not surprised. He didn’t have much of a choice. My dear Jack was an honest man, and he couldn’t claim that paper was based on his own discoveries, not without bending the truth until it snapped.


Tuesday: So Hetherington didn’t discover the atom exchange effects on his own?

F.D.C. Willard: Not at all. Helium’s behavior at low temperatures  is quite complex; it’s a fascinating subject. Jack was interested in my theories about the behavior of solid Helium 3,  but I had to explain it to him on his level, to break it down in a way he could understand. Once he grasped the concept, he was up and running, but my contribution was significant. He agonized over it, of course, knowing how we cats prefer our contributions to the field of physics to remain anonymous.


Tuesday: What finally made up his mind?

F.D.C. Willard: Without realizing it, he’d typed the entire paper in first person plural. When his proofreader pointed that out, he thought about changing it, but decided to do the right thing and give credit where it was due. To protect my privacy, he created a formal name for me, using my scientific classifications as given names and my father’s name as my surname.


Tuesday: When the paper was published in Physical Review Letters, it was a big hit, and people all over the world tried to contact you. How did you handle that?

F.D.C. Willard: At first, I kept a low profile. I never answered their letters or phone calls. Eventually I did sign some papers for our friends, and then, as they say, the cat was out of the bag.


Tuesday: Your friend Hetherington received a rather unusual request; would you like to tell us about that?

F.D.C. Willard: Certainly. The Physics Department Chair at M.S.U. sent a charming letter to Jack in November of ’75, in which he conveyed his deep appreciation of my abilities and a humble request that I consider working for their institution, even if only as a Visiting Professor. Of course I was flattered by Truman O. Woodruff’s offer, but I had to turn him down.

Tuesday: Why was that?

F.D.C. Willard: I couldn’t bear to show Jack up in front of his colleagues. Our families had been best of friends since my father’s time. There was also my position as Head Supervisor in the ancestral abode to consider; it wouldn’t be fair for me to give a professorship anything less than my full attention.


Tuesday: Hetherington typed up a paper for a French physics journal as well, which listed you as the sole author. How did you feel about that?

F.D.C. Willard: For cats, dabbling in academia isn’t a publish-or-perish situation, but Hetherington felt I’d appreciate having my own work out there under my own name. It was kind, but unnecessary;  we physics-obsessed cats don’t need praise, physical rewards or publishing credits to motivate us to search for knowledge. The thrill of the chase is enough!

Tuesday: So what’s in store for your future? Are you planning to reveal any additional discoveries?


F.D.C. Willard: No, this is my seventh life; it’s time to settle down. I’m focusing on the three “f”s this go-around: Family, fun, and food. Helium will still be there if I get the urge to study it again.

Tuesday: Thank you for your time, F.D.C. If anyone in our audience would like to read F.D.C. Willard’s famous paper, I’m delighted to say that the American Physical Society  agreed in 2014 to make all cat-authored papers open-access on their website. Enjoy!