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Time Travel and the Speed of Light

This is one of my favourite videos from the legendary Carl Sagan. He explains the consequences of near to speed of light travel.

This topic fits quite well into a number of mathematical topics – from graphing, to real life uses of equations, to standard form and unit conversions. It also challenges our notion of time as we usually experience it and therefore leads onto some interesting questions about the nature of reality. Below we can see the time dilation graph:

time dilation

which clearly shows that for low speeds there is very little time dilation, but when we start getting to within 90% of the speed of light, that there is a very significant time dilation effect. For more accuracy we can work out the exact dilation using the formula given – where v is the speed traveled, c is the speed of light, t is the time experienced in the observer’s own frame of reference (say, by looking at his watch) and t’ is the time experienced in a different, stationary time frame (say on Earth) . Putting some numbers in for real life examples:

1) A long working air steward spends a cumulative total of 5 years in the air – flying at an average speed of 900km/h. How much longer will he live (from a stationary viewpoint) compared to if he had been a bus driver?

2) Voyager 1, launched in 1977 and now currently about 1.8×10^10 km away from Earth is traveling at around 17km/s. How far does this craft travel in 1 hour? What would the time dilation be for someone onboard since 1977?

3) I built a spacecraft capable of traveling at 95% the speed of light. I said goodbye to my twin sister and hopped aboard, flew for a while before returning to Earth. If I experienced 10 years on the space craft, how much younger will I be than my twin?

Scroll to the bottom for the answers

Marcus De Sautoy also presents an interesting Horizon documentary on the speed of light, its history and the CERN experiments last year that suggested that some particles may have traveled faster than light:

There is a lot of scope for extra content on this topic – for example, looking at the distance of some stars visible in the night sky. For example, red super-giant star Belelgeuse is around 600 light years from Earth. (How many kilometres is that?) When we look at Betelgeuse we are actually looking 600 years “back in time” – so does it make sense to use time as a frame of reference for existence?


1) Convert 900km/h into km/s = 0.25km/s. Now substitute this value into the equation, along with the speed of light at 300,000km/s….and even using Google’s computer calculator we get a difference so negligible that the denominator rounds to 1.

2) With units already in km/s we substitute the values in – and using a powerful calculator find that denominator is 0.99999999839. Therefore someone traveling on the ship for what their watch recorded as 35 years would actually have been recorded as leaving Earth 35.0000000562 years ago. Which is about 1.78seconds! So still not much effect.

3) This time we get a denominator of 0.3122498999 and so the time experienced by my twin will be 32 years. In effect my sister will have aged 22 years more than me on my return. Amazing!

If you enjoyed this topic you might also like:

Michio Kaku – Universe in a Nutshell

Champagne Supernovas and the Birth of the Universe – some amazing pictures from space.

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