It's all relative: Einstein's theory timeless after 100 years

By Greg Gelpi

Marty McFly zipped from 1985 to 1955 by taking his Delorean to 88 mph.

He was no Doc Brown and he had no Delorean, but Albert Einstein theorized that as an object approached the speed of light, slightly faster than 88 mph, time in relation to the object is slower than time of objects that are stationary.

"Basically, Einstein's theory of relativity changes our whole idea about space, time and mass," said Tatiana Krivosheev, Clayton College & State University assistant professor of physics.

Everything can be described with a clock and a meter stick, in terms of time and space, she said. Time and space, though, is relative to another object's time and space.

Approaching the 100th anniversary of the theory, Krivosheev said Einstein's theories revolutionized physics and continue to impact the scientific world today.

"His mind just fascinates me," said Leigh Coria, a Clayton College & State University student from McDonough. "To figure all that out before his contemporaries could prove it just shocked me."

Coria is studying relativity with fellow student Chad Tisdale in a modern physics class.

"Learning that time isn't constant took me a little time to wrap my head around," Tisdale said.

We're accustomed to relatively slow speeds, so we don't notice anything, Krivosheev said. As objects approach the speed of light, 300,000 kilometers an hour, time relative to the clock slows compared with stationary objects in what's called time dilation.

"The faster you move, the longer you live," Krivosheev said laughing.

Time travel, nuclear power and wormholes are theorized when discussing Einstein's theory of relativity.

E=MC2 may be the "most famous formula" from his theories, but Krivosheev said it's probably not the most important.

Because of its social and political implications, E=MC2 gets the most attention, Krivosheev said. Mass times the speed of light squared equals energy. In other words, a small amount of mass can be converted to a large amount of energy, an idea that led to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Philosophically, relativity says that there is no absolute right or wrong, she said. The only absolute, according to the theory, is the speed of light.

Watching as the objects speeds by, it will also appear to be shorter than it actually is, she said.

The theory also states that two simultaneous events in one relative time frame aren't simultaneous in any other time frame, Krivosheev said. She explained that two musicians playing at the same time relative to a conductor don't play together in different relative times. A person passing by near the speed of light would hear that the two musicians aren't playing together.

Everything is relative, said Dan Greer, a Jonesboro High School physical science teacher. Greer's class "defended Earth from an alien invasion" last week to demonstrate relativity on two dimensions.

Using what he called "very sophisticated scientific tools," Greer's class shot dart guns at paper alien targets to calculate horizontal and angular projection.

"The main thing Einstein means to me is not the answers he came up with, but the questions he posed," Greer said. "He laid out a lot of questions that we are still looking for the answers for."

Einstein's theories laid the "groundwork" for space exploration and many of the electronics we have today, he said.

Although time dilation and other aspects of relativity are beyond a high school physics class, Greer said his job is to spark an interest in his students that they can pursue in college.

"All of us are moving at the speed of light because of the speed the universe is expanding, but we don't feel it," he said. "I always say things like that to blow their minds."

Jonesboro High senior Nikki Lane said Einstein's theory of relativity is an illustration of a "great mind."

"It's so complex, yet it's just E=MC2," Lane said.

Patrick Saxby said he wasn't sure what exactly the formula means, but that he did know that the formula is of great importance.

The 100th anniversary of the theory of relativity also marks the same anniversary for Einstein's work on photoelectric effect, which earned him a Nobel Prize.