# Space And Time – A Briefer History of Time (Part 2)

## Part 2: Space And Time – A Briefer History of Time

An equally remarkable consequence of relativity is the way it has revolutionized our ideas of space and time. In Newton’s theory, if a pulse of light is sent from one place to another, different observers would agree on the time that the journey took (since time is absolute), but will not always agree on how far the light traveled (since space is not absolute). Since the speed of the light is just the distance it has traveled divided by the time it has taken, different observers would measure different speeds for the light.

In relativity, on the other hand, all observers must agree on how fast light travels. They still, however, do not agree on the distance the light has traveled, so they must therefore now also disagree over the time it has taken. (The time taken is the distance the light has traveled—which the observers do not agree on— divided by the light’s speed—which they do agree on.) In other words, the theory of relativity put an end to the idea of absolute time! It appeared that each observer must have his own measure of time, as recorded by a clock carried with him, and that identical clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree.

Each observer could use radar to say where and when an event took place by sending out a pulse of light or radio waves. Part of the pulse is reflected back at the event and the observer measures the time at which he receives the echo. The time of the event is then said to be the time halfway between when the pulse was sent and the time when the reflection was received back: the distance of the event is half the time taken for this round trip, multiplied by the speed of light. (An event, in this sense, is something that takes place at a single point in space, at a specified point in time.) This idea is shown in Fig. 2.1, which is an example of a space-time diagram.

Using this procedure, observers who are moving relative to each other will assign different times and positions to the same event. No particular observer’s measurements are any more correct than any other observer’s, but all the measurements are related. Any observer can work out precisely what time and position any other observer will assign to an event, provided he knows the other observer’s relative velocity. Nowadays we use just this method to measure distances precisely, because we can measure time more accurately than length. In effect, the meter is defined to be the distance traveled by light in 0.000000003335640952 second, as measured by a cesium clock. (The reason for that particular number is that it corresponds to the historical definition of the meter—in terms of two marks on a particular platinum bar kept in Paris.) Equally, we can use a more convenient, new unit of length called a light-second. This is simply defined as the distance that light travels in one second.

In the theory of relativity, we now define distance in terms of time and the speed of light, so it follows automatically that every observer will measure light to have the same speed (by definition, 1 meter per 0.000000003335640952 second). There is no need to introduce the idea of an ether, whose presence anyway cannot be detected, as the Michelson-Morley experiment showed. The theory of relativity does, however, force us to change fundamentally our ideas of space and time. We must accept that time is not completely separate from and independent of space, but is combined with it to form an object called space-time.

It is a matter of common experience that one can describe the position of a point in space by three numbers, or coordinates. For instance, one can say that a point in a room is seven feet from one wall, three feet from another, and five feet above the floor. Or one could specify that a point was at a certain latitude and longitude and a certain height above sea level. One is free to use any three suitable coordinates, although they have only a limited range of validity. One would not specify the position of the moon in terms of miles north and miles west of Piccadilly Circus and feet above sea level.

Instead, one might describe it in terms of distance from the sun, distance from the plane of the orbits of the planets, and the angle between the line joining the moon to the sun and the line joining the sun to a nearby star such as Alpha Centauri. Even these coordinates would not be of much use in describing the position of the sun in our galaxy or the position of our galaxy in the local group of galaxies. In fact, one may describe the whole universe in terms of a collection of overlapping patches. In each patch, one can use a different set of three coordinates to specify the position of a point.

An event is something that happens at a particular point in space and at a particular time. So one can specify it by four numbers or coordinates. Again, the choice of coordinates is arbitrary; one can use any three well-defined spatial coordinates and any measure of time. In relativity, there is no real distinction between the space and time coordinates, just as there is no real difference between any two space coordinates. One could choose a new set of coordinates in which, say, the first space coordinate was a combination of the old first and second space coordinates. For instance, instead of measuring the position of a point on the earth in miles north of Piccadilly and miles west of Piccadilly, one could use miles northeast of Piccadilly, and miles northwest of Piccadilly. Similarly, in relativity, one could use a new time coordinate that was the old time (in seconds) plus the distance (in light- seconds) north of Piccadilly.

It is often helpful to think of the four coordinates of an event as specifying its position in a four-dimensional space called space-time. It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualize three-dimensional space! However, it is easy to draw diagrams of two-dimensional spaces, such as the surface of the earth. (The surface of the earth is two-dimensional because the position of a point can be specified by two coordinates, latitude and longitude.) I shall generally use diagrams in which time increases upward and one of the spatial dimensions is shown horizontally.

The other two spatial dimensions are ignored or, sometimes, one of them is indicated by perspective. (These are called space-time diagrams, like Fig. 2.1.) For example, in Fig. 2.2 time is measured upward in years and the distance along the line from the sun to Alpha Centauri is measured horizontally in miles. The paths of the sun and of Alpha Centauri through space-time are shown as the vertical lines on the left and right of the diagram. A ray of light from the sun follows the diagonal line, and takes four years to get from the sun to Alpha Centauri.

As we have seen, Maxwell’s equations predicted that the speed of light should be the same whatever the speed of the source, and this has been confirmed by accurate measurements. It follows from this that if a pulse of light is emitted at a particular time at a particular point in space, then as time goes on it will spread out as a sphere of light whose size and position are independent of the speed of the source. After one millionth of a second the light will have spread out to form a sphere with a radius of 300 meters; after two millionths of a second, the radius will be 600 meters; and so on.

It will be like the ripples that spread out on the surface of a pond when a stone is thrown in. The ripples spread out as a circle that gets bigger as time goes on. If one stacks snapshots of the ripples at different times one above the other, the expanding circle of ripples will mark out a cone whose tip is at the place and time at which the stone hit the water (Fig. 2.3). Similarly, the light spreading out from an event forms a (three-dimensional) cone in (the four-dimensional) space-time. This cone is called the future light cone of the event. In the same way we can draw another cone, called the past light cone, which is the set of events from which a pulse of light is able to reach the given event (Fig. 2.4).

Given an event P, one can divide the other events in the universe into three classes. Those events that can be reached from the event P by a particle or wave traveling at or below the speed of light are said to be in the future of P. They will lie within or on the expanding sphere of light emitted from the event P. Thus they will lie within or on the future light cone of P in the space-time diagram. Only events in the future of P can be affected by what happens at P because nothing can travel faster than light.

Similarly, the past of P can be defined as the set of all events from which it is possible to reach the event P traveling at or below the speed of light. It is thus the set of events that can affect what happens at P. The events that do not lie in the future or past of P are said to lie in the elsewhere of P (Fig. 2.5). What happens at such events can neither affect nor be affected by what happens at P. For example, if the sun were to cease to shine at this very moment, it would not affect things on earth at the present time because they would be in the elsewhere of the event when the sun went out (Fig. 2.6).

We would know about it only after eight minutes, the time it takes light to reach us from the sun. Only then would events on earth lie in the future light cone of the event at which the sun went out. Similarly, we do not know what is happening at the moment farther away in the universe: the light that we see from distant galaxies left them millions of years ago, and in the case of the most distant object that we have seen, the light left some eight thousand million years ago. Thus, when we look at the universe, we are seeing it as it was in the past.