The Spacetime Diet: Redistributing the Fat of the Universe

If you’ve had your nose in spacetime physics at all, you’re familiar with the idea that when you move really fast, other objects look thinner. Or, relatively, you look thinner from the viewpoint of someone else’s reference frame.

This is called the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction. When you observe a moving object, it appears shorter, or thinner, along the axis of its motion relative to you. Likewise, you appear thinner relative to the moving object (who does not feel thin at all). There’s a formula for this, but it’s irrelevant for the discussion below.

You also appear to gain mass (using a similar formula). This is also irrelevant for the following discussion, but I thought I’d toss it out there.

So here’s the rub. You will often hear someone say or write, “When an object nears the speed of light, the universe flattens to a thin sheet from the viewpoint of an observer on that object.”

Just to clarify, this is bullshit. If you are cruising along at near-light speed, then all matter, relative to your frame of reference, is moving in the opposite direction at near-lightspeed. That’s okay so far. Except, the universe is expanding. And the farther out you go, the faster it’s expanding, such that there are regions of space expanding away faster than the speed of light (the expansion of “space” is apparently able to ignore the whole “speed of light” limit thing; go figure).

So when you attain a certain velocity, you become stationary relative to another part of the universe that is moving away from Earth at the same speed. There is no shortening of length or thickness for that object, that part of the universe.

Take the Andromeda Galaxy for example, moving toward us at 110 kilometers per second. When we measure the galaxy in the direction of its travel, along its axis of motion, it’s foreshortened in that direction. Now, fire up your rockets so you’re traveling at 100 kilometers per second in the same direction, and Shazam! The entire galaxy poofs back out to its real shape in its own frame of reference that happens to coincide with your own. Relative to you, the Andromeda Galaxy is no longer moving.

So, back to the expanding universe; as your spaceship speeds up more and more, there’s always a part of the universe that’s moving at the same speed at which you are traveling (a comoving reference frame). It won’t look compressed or thinner or foreshortened at all. In fact, if we take the viewpoint that all parts of the universe are essentially equal, (that is, there is no “center” of the universe) then the universe doesn’t compress into a pancake at all as you near the speed of light; it’s just that the non-foreshortened part of it, the part that matches your current velocity, is farther and farther away from you. But the overall volume will appear unchanged.

 

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