Sabin Russell Science Writer


Wrinkles in Time — Stephen Hawking Dives into the Quantum Foam

Stephen Hawking Credit: Getty Images

Since it is Sunday, a day for secular humanists to reflect, I was delighted to read a very accessible discourse on time and space by Stephen Hawking in -- of all places -- the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid. 

Hawking has been in the news lately, making the observation that maybe it would not be a good ideas to contact space aliens, as they would more or less give us the Christopher Columbus treatment. This is really sort of ...obvious, and makes me worry a little bit about Dr. Hawking, as he is better known for really clear descriptions of things that aren't obvious at all, such as the bendable nature of space and time. He's wonderfully sympathetic to those of us who can grasp the importance of what deep physics is telling us, but really can't explain it to ourselves. 

So I was pleased to read this essay on line in the Daily Mail. I'll excerpt bits of it, but I encourage all of you to read it, cause it's just plain cosmic fun. It's called: How to Build a Time Machine, All you need is a wormhole, the Large Hadron Collider or a rocket that goes really, really fast. 

If I can't convince you to jump right in and read the whole thing, I at least hope you will read a few of his more interesting paragraphs. Hawking is at his popular best when he is explaining Einstein. He's like a Sunday School teacher in the Church of Relativity. Some day, if I read my Book often enough, I might actually grok it. 

So here are a few clips from the article. First, describing wormholes, which like time tunnels of science fiction, are indeed a kind of portal within the fourth dimension: 

"Physicists have been thinking about tunnels in time too, but we come at it from a different angle. We wonder if portals to the past or the future could ever be possible within the laws of nature. As it turns out, we think they are. What's more, we've even given them a name: wormholes. The truth is that wormholes are all around us, only they're too small to see. Wormholes are very tiny. They occur in nooks and crannies in space and time. You might find it a tough concept, but stay with me... 

Nothing is flat or solid. If you look closely enough at anything you'll find holes and wrinkles in it. It's a basic physical principle, and it even applies to time. Even something as smooth as a pool ball has tiny crevices, wrinkles and voids. Now it's easy to show that this is true in the first three dimensions. But trust me, it's also true of the fourth dimension. There are tiny crevices, wrinkles and voids in time. Down at the smallest of scales, smaller even than molecules, smaller than atoms, we get to a place called the quantum foam. This is where wormholes exist. Tiny tunnels or shortcuts through space and time constantly form, disappear, and reform within this quantum world. And they actually link two separate places and two different times. 

Unfortunately, these real-life time tunnels are just a billion-trillion-trillionths of a centimetre across. Way too small for a human to pass through - but here's where the notion of wormhole time machines is leading. Some scientists think it may be possible to capture a wormhole and enlarge it many trillions of times to make it big enough for a human or even a spaceship to enter..." 

In another section of the essay, Hawking once again goes to the Einstein, explaining the plasticity of time with a nice water metaphor, and then going into a real world example of just how close relativity comes to home -- how the GPS system in our Garmins and iPhones has to take gravity's brake on time into account. That river of time runs just a tad more quickly in satellites circling the earth -- and if they did not calibrate their internal clocks to take this relativistic phenonmenon into account, our GPS's would miss their coordinates by...six miles a day

"Time flows like a river and it seems as if each of us is carried relentlessly along by time's current. But time is like a river in another way. It flows at different speeds in different places and that is the key to travelling into the future. This idea was first proposed by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago. He realised that there should be places where time slows down, and others where time speeds up. He was absolutely right. And the proof is right above our heads. Up in space. 

This is the Global Positioning System, or GPS. A network of satellites is in orbit around Earth. The satellites make satellite navigation possible. But they also reveal that time runs faster in space than it does down on Earth. Inside each spacecraft is a very precise clock. But despite being so accurate, they all gain around a third of a billionth of a second every day. The system has to correct for the drift, otherwise that tiny difference would upset the whole system, causing every GPS device on Earth to go out by about six miles a day. You can just imagine the mayhem that that would cause. 

The problem doesn't lie with the clocks. They run fast because time itself runs faster in space than it does down below. And the reason for this extraordinary effect is the mass of the Earth. Einstein realised that matter drags on time and slows it down like the slow part of a river. The heavier the object, the more it drags on time. And this startling reality is what opens the door to the possibility of time travel to the future..." 

So, time travelers, read the Daily Mail: 


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Posted by Sabin Russell

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  1. Sabin….You are incapable of being uninteresting. Because of you, I am reading the dreaded Daily Mail…..instead of painting my guest room as previously planned. Your article of frogs scared me so badly I will never eat frog legs again. Will continue to eat fungi, however, to keep them in check.


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