It goes like this: Brothers. Identical twins. They could just as easily be sisters, but I’m a boy so I’ll make them boys. One of the brothers gets on a rocket ship and flies into space, accelerating to nearly the speed of light (designated ‘c’) for a journey to a nearby star. The other stays behind on Earth. A few years later our space-fairing traveler returns to his terrestrial home to share his experiences. Except he find’s his brother is now an old man, having aged many more years than he during the same time.
We’ve all heard of this. It is an inevitable consequence of Einstein’s Special Relativity. And quite a surprising outcome at that. It is called Relativistic Time Dilation and is a real effect. Given two frames of reference (a boring physics term that just means point-of-view), if one of them is accelerated, time will slow down in the accelerated frame relative to the frame that stayed put. That all-important word there ‘relative’ is where the theory gets it’s cryptic name.
But time dilation is real. It has been measured. Clocks aboard GPS satellites run slower than clocks on Earth. If we didn’t account for this our Tom-Tom would put us miles off. High speed muons and neutrons take longer to decay than stationary ones. Things get heavier too, as one approaches c. Ultimately, they get infinitely heavy, which makes it impossible to get that last little push, since it would require infinite energy. Equally strange, matter gets compressed in the direction of motion. A yard stick, dully accelerated, will become shorter and shorter as it approaches c. These effects are minuscule, even unmeasurable for everyday speeds, but as one approaches c, they become overwhelming. Except for anyone traveling in the accelerated frame none of this happens. Everything seems perfectly normal.
So what does this have to do with writing? How does Einstein’s 1905 theory impact my literary pursuits? Aside from the fact that Special Relativity is often used in science fiction, and sounds a lot like science fiction, there is another surprising, at least to me, connection. I will use one of Einstein’s techniques to explain. He called it a gedankenexperiment – a thought experiment.
Suppose I am a twin. One of me sits down at a desk to write a computer program that calculates the intersection between two orbiting bodies. The other ‘me’ sits down across from him in the same room and begins writing a book. At the end of the day the engineer is worn out and exhausted, having felt every minute pass as if it were cold water dripping on his neck. The writer however is energized and engaged, his mind alert and active, and indeed surprised that the day is over. For him, time seems not to have passed at all: Literistic Time Dilation! And let me tell you, this is a real effect. And not only that, given years of this, the right-brained writer will age far more slowly than his left-brain-trapped counterpart.
It is also a powerful validation that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. Most of us writers do this for a long time before achieving measurable success. Over 11 years on average before getting published. It’s easy to question ourselves “Is all this time invested worth it?” Or, “How do I know I’m doing the right thing?”
Well, if you are experiencing literistic time dilation you are doing the right thing. It isn’t just about getting published and getting paid. Yes, we all want that. But life is also about finding contentment and a sense of purpose. In fact, material success without these things is not of much benefit if it makes you age more quickly.
Perhaps it all just comes down to the old adage, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” No doubt this is true but I like to think there’s more to it. A transcendental connection between creation and existence. Between finding what you are meant to do, and doing it. Something intangible and immeasurable that takes us out of this temporal world in which we’re confined, and, if only for brief periods, accelerates us to the speed of light.