Magazine article Science News

It Isn't Just for Astronauts Anymore: Physicists Demonstrate Relativity in the Down-to-Earth Realm

Magazine article Science News

It Isn't Just for Astronauts Anymore: Physicists Demonstrate Relativity in the Down-to-Earth Realm

Article excerpt

Probing the peculiar effects of Einstein's relativity is no longer rocket science. Tabletop experiments in a Colorado lab have illustrated the odd behavior of time, a strangeness typically examined with space travel and jet planes.

Using superprecise atomic clocks, scientists have witnessed time dilation--the bizarre slowing of time described by Einstein's theories of relativity. The experiments are presented in the Sept. 24 Science.

"Modern technology has gotten so precise you can see these exotic effects in the range of your living room," says physicist Clifford Will of Washington University in St. Louis. The experiments don't reveal any new physics, Will says, but "what makes it cute and pretty cool is they have done it on a tabletop."

Time dilation arises in two situations. In one, time appears to move more slowly the closer you are to a massive object, such as the Earth. So a person hovering in a hot-air balloon, for example, actually ages faster than someone standing below.

Time also goes faster for someone at rest relative to someone moving--one 25-year-old twin traveling in a rocket near the speed of light for what he perceives as a few months would return to Earth to find that the other had reached middle age.

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Previous experiments with rockets and airplanes have demonstrated these odd aspects of general and special relativity. The notion of time running slower closer to Earth has even been tested in a multistory physics building at Harvard. …

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