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.



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!

Those Pesky Inter-dimensional Portals

Michio Kaku, my favorite theoretical physicist (besides Tuesday our cat, or course), has interesting ideas about parallel universes, and ways we might possibly escape from one to the other. I can’t help but wonder if he gleaned the inspiration for this theory from the behavior of a portal-guarding cat.

Inter-dimensional portal, or dull, ordinary sunbeam? Only Loki knows for sure.

Cats may be the keepers of inter-dimensional portals that riddle our planet. Retired physicist Robert White recorded his own observations of the feline portal guardians who visited a dimensional gateway via a broken fence. The portal was destroyed by an improvident fence repair, but I know of at least one portal still in operation.

Our family has lived in the same home for almost 14 years now, and three different cats have shared it with us. Observing their behavior has led us to the conclusion that we have an inter-dimensional portal to two parallel universes in our basement.

The first cat guardian of this portal was our dear kitty Corky. Blessed with a giving heart and a strong sense of responsibility, he took over the maintenance and guardianship of the portal the first day we moved in.


Hard at work,  guarding the portal


He spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at the top of the staircase and staring down into the dark basement; on occasion, he would dash down the stairs and run in mad circles, yowling. I don’t pretend to understand all he was doing–if I did, I’d be a cat–but it was obvious it was vitally important, because when he would begin to yowl, his brother Spot would sprint down the stairs to help him. Sometimes my children and I followed as well, but with our limited perceptions, we were more hindrance than help, and the cats would usually stare at us as if wondering how creatures with such big brains could be so stupid.

Over time, we came to recognize the parallel-universe versions of Corky. Sometimes, to keep the portal in good working order, it was apparently necessary for the Corkys to shift position.

A rare photo of Murky from Universe -1

There was the double we called Murky; obviously from a universe with a a higher chaos quotient and a lower organizational structure, he was a wild-eyed creature with fur in disarray, given to uncontrolled spurts of of energy.

Sys-Admin (from Universe +1) taking time out of his busy schedule to point out a grammatical error.

We also met a double we called Sys-Admin; his universe appeared to have a lower chaos quotient and a higher level of organization than ours.

His behavior was formal, controlled and patient; we believe he may have been a secondary teacher or an accountant in his universe.

Neither of these two doubles, of course, paid much attention to us, or seemed to recognize us when we spoke to them. (Of course, we weren’t really “their” humans.)

Their disappearances were always preceded by a mad dash down the stairs and, presumably, through the portal. With the impeccable timing of cats, they changed positions with Corky at exactly the same velocity, position and time, so we never were able to observe the actual transference. To us, it seemed our cat was merely running in circles, and then behaving like himself again.

Corky’s litter-mate, Spot, never sat at the top of the stairs and guarded the portal–not until Corky passed away. Then suddenly there he was, having taken over the job, and it was his yowling voice we heard in the basement, and him sprinting in circles.

When our daughter moved and took her cat Spot with her, Tuesday came to live with us from the shelter. She took over the stair-top post, and she spends a reasonable amount of time watching the portal. Tuesday, however, as a theoretical physicist, is better able to ration her time and interactions depending on the mathematical variables of portal flux.

Corky was a gifted amateur; Tuesday is a professional. She is much more careful to avoid suspicion, and can fix problems rapidly, so we have never had a chance to meet her doubles. She very, very seldom yowls for help; when she does, if we meet her in the basement, she turns her back on us and flips her tail about, as if saying, “Oh dear, you poor clueless things, I didn’t mean YOU.”

A Cat’s-Eye View of Liminal Space

Tuesday the cat loves to test my understanding of liminal space.

“Check it out! I’m in a liminal space! Again!”

The word “liminal”comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means “threshhold.” Liminal space has evolved to describe a place, time, idea or event balanced on the fulcrum of imminent change.

The space can be physical or metaphysical; a tunnel between two buildings is a liminal space, but so is the space between the acceptance of a new belief and rejection of the original.

Liminal spaces make Loki nervous. They remind him of Schrödinger’s cat.

Tuesday is somewhat heavy-handed when it comes to liminal space demonstrations. Every door, be it full-size or cupboard-size, is an opportunity to instruct the humans in her family. She loves to pose half-in, half-out, and becomes frustrated when we insist she pick a side, because after all, that isn’t the POINT.

Historically, liminal space was a period within a ritual when an initiate is neither one thing or the other; an example of this is the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, first described by Arnold van Gennep. He identified the following three stages: separation from parents, or ‘death of childhood;’ the passing of a test to prove the initiate is worthy of the prize of adulthood; and the ‘new birth’ as the initiate is welcomed back into society as a fully-fledged adult.

Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors and the developer of the Diskworld (a flat world that rests on the backs of four giant elephants, who balance on the shell of a giant, space-faring turtle), uses the “rite of passage” ritual in one of his rare non-Diskworld children’s books, NATION. Early on, the poor initiate discovers that although he has passed the test, and is worthy of full adult status, he will never experience the ‘new birth’ portion of the ritual. He is trapped in liminal space forever.

Not unlike Tuesday, or so she would have us believe.

Lost in Space: The Unconsidered Hazards of Time Travel


Little Loki is fascinated with the theory of time travel.


Hulu and Netflix make it way too easy for me to feed my time travel addiction.  Dr. Who, Time After Time, Quantum Leap, D.C.’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Continuum, Primeval–SF binge-watching has never been more fun.

The different time travel theories proposed by each show and the screenwriters’ various answers to the insidious paradox problem fascinate (and sometimes infuriate) me. My favorite theory so far was advanced by the character Fitz in Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; he insists that if a psychic truly saw the future, then of course that future can’t be changed. If anyone could change the future by their action or inaction, then the psychic wouldn’t have the ability to see the actual future, now would she, because what she saw was only a potential future. If she can view the future, then it will be as fixed and unchangeable as the past. Viewing the future collapses the waveform! I love it!

One thing everyone seems to ignore, though, is the critical “moving through space” part of time travel. If I went back in time an hour or so, my main problem wouldn’t be avoiding myself so as not to create a paradox; my problem would be my inability to breathe or maintain internal temperature and pressure in the vacuum of space.

Earth is rotating at 1000 miles an hour; it is rocketing around the Sun at a speed of 66,000 miles an hour; the sun is moving at a pretty fair turn of speed around the galaxy at 483,000 miles an hour, and the galaxy is streaking through space at 1.3  million miles an hour! (1)

Celestial motion won’t stop in deference to my little time-travel jaunt.

What makes my time-travel journey so exciting (and lethal) is the fact that we don’t have absolute reference points to quantify all this motion. We don’t know the precise location of the Big Bang, or the exact distance traveled so far, and we don’t know our precise speed, either.  Mathematicians are amazing people, and if they had absolute reference points I’ve no doubt they could calculate exactly where we are now and exactly where we were an hour ago. They could make my trip nonlethal–if we weren’t lost out here in space. We don’t know where we started and we don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going, either.

One popular way Hollywood ignores the whole “lost in space” problem: semi-sentient, gigantic wormholes are eager to assist time travelers. These wormholes magically know when and where they are going and how to expand to an improbable size and safely convey travelers to their destinations in one piece. Characters use mystical phrases like “quantum entanglement,” “negative longitude” and “Einstein-Rosen Bridge” in haphazard ways, but nobody does any math, and the mystical wormholes are in charge of celestial navigation.

Math is the antithesis of magic. Math requires a lot of hard work, and relies on facts, theories and formulas. It only looks magical from the outside.

Mastery of movement in time is only half the problem; quantifying travel in space is equally challenging. Still, I guess it’s just as well screenwriters cheat and pretend wormholes (or the machines traveling through them) can solve complex math problems and calculate the precise location of our tiny ball of rock as it hurtles through the universe. If they didn’t, those shows I love to watch would be awfully short.

(1) ASP: How Fast Are You Moving When You’re Sitting Still?


My Cat Groks Spacetime

Thanks to Michio Kaku’s book, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension, I finally know what’s been troubling our cat, Tuesday. She’s been trying to teach me theoretical physics!


Tuesday: “How many dimensions would our world have if you could trap me by drawing a line around me?”

Thanks to Michio Kaku’s book, Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension, I finally know what’s been troubling our cat, Tuesday. She’s been trying to teach me theoretical physics! Michio Kaku is one of those rare geniuses who is so smart he can not only understand theoretical physics, but also explain it so clearly that his non-physicist readers imagine they understand it, too. To help us ordinary folks make sense of dimensions beyond our own, he asks us to imagine what it would be like to live in a two-dimensional world.
The denizens of this world, the Flatlanders, are incapable of visualizing three dimensions, and can only interpret what they see based on their own world-view. A Flatlander prison, for example, would be a cinch to create. To imprison a Flatlander, all you have to do is draw a line around him. There he’ll stay, unable to escape.

My cat has demonstrated this principle by pretending to be a Flatlander. If I make a circle of yarn or string on the floor, she’ll sit down in it and give me a penetrating stare. See, human? Now I’m trapped! 

Liminal space also fascinates my cat; she uses it to tutor me in the theory of the multiverse. She’ll pause half-in, half-out of the doorway, look up at me, and mew. Obviously, she’s trying to explain that until she makes a decision, the waveform of potentiality remains intact. She’ll walk through the doorway, then direct my attention to the fact that the waveform is now collapsed for that particular decision. Immediately she’ll reverse directions and face the doorway again, or take a few steps backwards, or bound back through the doorway to demonstrate the infinite number of potentialities possible in each simple decision.

The concept of “now,” or the rate of time, is another subject dear to our kitty’s heart. The perception of “now,” as explained by Richard A. Muller in Now: The Physics of Time, is the number of milliseconds it takes to send a signal from our senses to the brain, plus the time it takes the brain to process, record and remember the signal. “In humans,” Muller explains, “that’s a few tenths of a second; for a fly, a few thousandths of a second. That’s why it is hard for a human to catch a fly…your threatening hand approaches in slow motion…”

Tuesday has shown me time and time again that she can catch a fly in midair; her quicker, more sensitive brain is capable of processing much faster than mine. The flow of time I perceive is much slower than the flow of time she perceives; therefore, when she requests her dinner a half hour in advance, her expectation is realistic based on her own perception of time. Einstein’s twin paradox is fully comprehended by our cat. She isn’t asking for dinner early, we are providing it late. It isn’t her fault we are stuck in a slow, sludgy flow of time and never make allowances for general relativity.