# Space And Time – A Briefer History of Time (Part 1)

## Part 1: Space And Time – A Briefer History of Time

Our present ideas about the motion of bodies date back to Galileo and Newton. Before them people believed Aristotle, who said that the natural state of a body was to be at rest and that it moved only if driven by a force or impulse. It followed that a heavy body should fall faster than a light one, because it would have a greater pull toward the earth. The Aristotelian tradition also held that one could work out all the laws that govern the universe by pure thought: it was not necessary to check by observation. So no one until Galileo bothered to see whether bodies of different weight did in fact fall at different speeds. It is said that Galileo demonstrated that Aristotle’s belief was false by dropping weights from the leaning tower of Pisa.

The story is almost certainly untrue, but Galileo did do something equivalent: he rolled balls of different weights down a smooth slope. The situation is similar to that of heavy bodies falling vertically, but it is easier to observe because the speeds are smaller. Galileo’s measurements indicated that each body increased its speed at the same rate, no matter what its weight. For example, if you let go of a ball on a slope that drops by one meter for every ten meters you go along, the ball will be traveling down the slope at a speed of about one meter per second after one second, two meters per second after two seconds, and so on, however heavy the ball.

Of course a lead weight would fall faster than a feather, but that is only because a feather is slowed down by air resistance. If one drops two bodies that don’t have much air resistance, such as two different lead weights, they fall at the same rate. On the moon, where there is no air to slow things down, the astronaut David R. Scott performed the feather and lead weight experiment and found that indeed they did hit the ground at the same time.

Galileo’s measurements were used by Newton as the basis of his laws of motion. In Galileo’s experiments, as a body rolled down the slope it was always acted on by the same force (its weight), and the effect was to make it constantly speed up. This showed that the real effect of a force is always to change the speed of a body, rather than just to set it moving, as was previously thought. It also meant that whenever a body is not acted on by any force, it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. This idea was first stated explicitly in Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, and is known as Newton’s first law.

What happens to a body when a force does act on it is given by Newton’s second law. This states that the body will accelerate, or change its speed, at a rate that is proportional to the force. (For example, the acceleration is twice as great if the force is twice as great.) The acceleration is also smaller the greater the mass (or quantity of matter) of the body. (The same force acting on a body of twice the mass will produce half the acceleration.) A familiar example is provided by a car: the more powerful the engine, the greater the acceleration, but the heavier the car, the smaller the acceleration for the same engine. In addition to his laws of motion, Newton discovered a law to describe the force of gravity, which states that every body attracts every other body with a force that is proportional to the mass of each body.

Thus the force between two bodies would be twice as strong if one of the bodies (say, body A) had its mass doubled. This is what you might expect because one could think of the new body A as being made of two bodies with the original mass. Each would attract body B with the original force. Thus the total force between A and B would be twice the original force. And if, say, one of the bodies had twice the mass, and the other had three times the mass, then the force would be six times as strong. One can now see why all bodies fall at the same rate: a body of twice the weight will have twice the force of gravity pulling it down, but it will also have twice the mass. According to Newton’s second law, these two effects will exactly cancel each other, so the acceleration will be the same in all cases.

Newton’s law of gravity also tells us that the farther apart the bodies, the smaller the force. Newton’s law of gravity says that the gravitational attraction of a star is exactly one quarter that of a similar star at half the distance. This law predicts the orbits of the earth, the moon, and the planets with great accuracy. If the law were that the gravitational attraction of a star went down faster or increased more rapidly with distance, the orbits of the planets would not be elliptical, they would either spiral in to the sun or escape from the sun.

The big difference between the ideas of Aristotle and those of Galileo and Newton is that Aristotle believed in a preferred state of rest, which any body would take up if it were not driven by some force or impulse.

In particular, he thought that the earth was at rest. But it follows from Newton’s laws that there is no unique standard of rest. One could equally well say that body A was at rest and body B was moving at constant speed with respect to body A, or that body B was at rest and body A was moving. For example, if one sets aside for a moment the rotation of the earth and its orbit round the sun, one could say that the earth was at rest and that a train on it was traveling north at ninety miles per hour or that the train was at rest and the earth was moving south at ninety miles per hour. If one carried out experiments with moving bodies on the train, all Newton’s laws would still hold. For instance, playing Ping-Pong on the train, one would find that the ball obeyed Newton’s laws just like a ball on a table by the track. So there is no way to tell whether it is the train or the earth that is moving.

The lack of an absolute standard of rest meant that one could not determine whether two events that took place at different times occurred in the same position in space. For example, suppose our Ping-Pong ball on the train bounces straight up and down, hitting the table twice on the same spot one second apart. To someone on the track, the two bounces would seem to take place about forty meters apart, because the train would have traveled that far down the track between the bounces. The nonexistence of absolute rest therefore meant that one could not give an event an absolute position in space, as Aristotle had believed. The positions of events and the distances between them would be different for a person on the train and one on the track, and there would be no reason to prefer one person’s position to the other’s.

Newton was very worried by this lack of absolute position, or absolute space, as it was called, because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God. In fact, he refused to accept lack of absolute space, even though it was implied by his laws. He was severely criticized for this irrational belief by many people, most notably by Bishop Berkeley, a philosopher who believed that all material objects and space and time are an illusion. When the famous Dr. Johnson was told of Berkeley’s opinion, he cried, “I refute it thus!” and stubbed his toe on a large stone.
Both Aristotle and Newton believed in absolute time. That is, they believed that one could unambiguously measure the interval of time between two events, and that this time would be the same whoever measured it, provided they used a good clock. Time was completely separate from and independent of space. This is what most people would take to be the commonsense view. However, we have had to change our ideas about space and time. Although our apparently commonsense notions work well when dealing with things like apples, or planets that travel comparatively slowly, they don’t work at all for things moving at or near the speed of light.

The fact that light travels at a finite, but very high, speed was first discovered in 1676 by the Danish astronomer Ole Christensen Roemer. He observed that the times at which the moons of Jupiter appeared to pass behind Jupiter were not evenly spaced, as one would expect if the moons went round Jupiter at a constant rate. As the earth and Jupiter orbit around the sun, the distance between them varies. Roemer noticed that eclipses of Jupiter’s moons appeared later the farther we were from Jupiter. He argued that this was because the light from the moons took longer to reach us when we were farther away. His measurements of the variations in the distance of the earth from Jupiter were, however, not very accurate, and so his value for the speed of light was 140,000 miles per second, compared to the modern value of 186,000 miles per second.

Nevertheless, Roemer’s achievement, in not only proving that light travels at a finite speed, but also in measuring that speed, was remarkable—coming as it did eleven years before Newton’s publication of Principia Mathematica. A proper theory of the propagation of light didn’t come until 1865, when the British physicist James Clerk Maxwell succeeded in unifying the partial theories that up to then had been used to describe the forces of electricity and magnetism. Maxwell’s equations predicted that there could be wavelike disturbances in the combined electromagnetic field, and that these would travel at a fixed speed, like ripples on a pond. If the wavelength of these waves (the distance between one wave crest and the next) is a meter or more, they are what we now call radio waves.

Shorter wavelengths are known as microwaves (a few centimeters) or infrared (more than a ten-thousandth of a centimeter). Visible light has a wavelength of between only forty and eighty millionths of a centimeter. Even shorter wavelengths are known as ultraviolet, X rays, and gamma rays. Maxwell’s theory predicted that radio or light waves should travel at a certain fixed speed. But Newton’s theory had got rid of the idea of absolute rest, so if light was supposed to travel at a fixed speed, one would have to say what that fixed speed was to be measured relative to. It was therefore suggested that there was a substance called the “ether” that was present everywhere, even in “empty” space. Light waves should travel through the ether as sound waves travel through air, and their speed should therefore be relative to the ether.

Different observers, moving relative to the ether, would see light coming toward them at different speeds, but light’s speed relative to the ether would remain fixed. In particular, as the earth was moving through the ether on its orbit round the sun, the speed of light measured in the direction of the earth’s motion through the ether (when we were moving toward the source of the light) should be higher than the speed of light at right angles to that motion (when we are not moving toward the source). In 1887 Albert Michelson (who later became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for physics) and Edward Morley carried out a very careful experiment at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland.

They compared the speed of light in the direction of the earth’s motion with that at right angles to the earth’s motion. To their great surprise, they found they were exactly the same! Between 1887 and 1905 there were several attempts, most notably by the Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz, to explain the result of the Michelson-Morley experiment in terms of objects contracting and clocks slowing down when they moved through the ether. However, in a famous paper in 1905, a hitherto unknown clerk in the Swiss patent office, Albert Einstein, pointed out that the whole idea of an ether was unnecessary, providing one was willing to abandon the idea of absolute time. A similar point was made a few weeks later by a leading French mathematician, Henri Poincaré. Einstein’s arguments were closer to physics than those of Poincaré, who regarded this problem as mathematical.

Einstein is usually given the credit for the new theory, but Poincaré is remembered by having his name attached to an important part of it. The fundamental postulate of the theory of relativity, as it was called, was that the laws of science should be the same for all freely moving observers, no matter what their speed. This was true for Newton’s laws of motion, but now the idea was extended to include Maxwell’s theory and the speed of light: all observers should measure the same speed of light, no matter how fast they are moving. This simple idea has some remarkable consequences.

Perhaps the best known are the equivalence of mass and energy, summed up in Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 (where E is energy, m is mass, and c is the speed of light), and the law that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Because of the equivalence of energy and mass, the energy which an object has due to its motion will add to its mass. In other words, it will make it harder to increase its speed. This effect is only really significant for objects moving at speeds close to the speed of light. For example, at 10 percent of the speed of light an object’s mass is only 0.5 percent more than normal, while at 90 percent of the speed of light it would be more than twice its normal mass.

As an object approaches the speed of light, its mass rises ever more quickly, so it takes more and more energy to speed it up further. It can in fact never reach the speed of light, because by then its mass would have become infinite, and by the equivalence of mass and energy, it would have taken an infinite amount of energy to get it there. For this reason, any normal object is forever confined by relativity to move at speeds slower than the speed of light. Only light, or other waves that have no intrinsic mass, can move at the speed of light.