S03E05:The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary

In Catch-22, Airman Dunbar spends all his free time with people he doesn’t like.  That makes time go by slower so he can enjoy life longer.

catch_22

Physicists have their own way of slowing time.    Moving clocks tick slower than ones at rest.  Not because something goes wrong with the mechanism of a moving clock, but rather the passage of time itself slows down.  This effect, called “time dilation” is sufficiently familiar that the writers used it in joke by Leonard about a double-date that couldn’t end soon enough:  “Approaching the speed of light doesn’t slow down time. Approaching them does.”

It is tempting to use this as a launching point to discuss how a little-known patent clerk in Switzerland spent all his free time in 1905 thinking about physics problems (there was no internet or video games) and predicted all this.   That was Einstein and this was his special theory of relativity.  Normally, I love teaching special relativity.   I especially love teaching it to freshmen since so little math is required: just  distance equals rate times time and how a right-triangle works.  Yet,  I won’t do it here because it really isn’t because of the theory of relativity that we believe time goes slower for moving objects.  True, the theory of relativity is beautiful and Einstein was a one of the smartest guys ever.  But physics departments’ trash cans are full of beautiful theories and many brilliant people are long forgotten.  The real reason we believe in time dilation  is because experiments say it is so.  It is better to delve into one of them.

Particle accelerators (a.k.a. atom smashers) are great places to find things moving near the speed of light.     In the 1990’s I worked at the world’s largest particle accelerator, an international scientific laboratory called CERN, as a “post-doc”.  (A post-doc is the few years in a physicist’s life just after receiving a doctorate but before taking on a permanent post.  Although it has never been stated in the show, I think Leonard, Sheldon and Raj are all post-docs.)   While I was working at CERN,  my friends and I needed particles to test and align our detector.  The accelerator division kindly  sent us a beam of particles called muons.  Muons are just like electrons but they are heavy and undergo radioactive decay quickly, living on average for only 2.2 millionths of a second (0.0000022 seconds).  Even though these muons moved at nearly the speed of light, even light traverses only 2200 feet in 2.2 millionths of a second.  You might think that when being sent from one side of the (large) lab to the other,  you would lose most of them to decay before they arrived.  Yet,  “time dilation” came to our rescue.  The muons we needed to calibrate our detector moved at 99.9999% the speed of light and we saw their internal clocks slow down by a factor of 1000, meaning they lived 1000 times longer.   It was no problem to bring them a safe, long distance from the accelerator, down to our experiment, where we made good use of them.

CERN. The world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.  It largest ring crosses two countries, France and Switzerland
CERN. The world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Its longest beampipe crosses between two countries, France and Switzerland

If you could ask them, what would the muons say happened?  They likely would say that they were are at rest the whole time and rather it was me, my friends,and the whole lab moving towards them at 99.9999% the speed of light.  They are not moving so they would still measure their own average life as 2.2 millionths of a second; so how did they get across the lab to our detector without decaying?  If asked, the muons would report the distance across the lab to our experiment was 1000 times shorter than we would.  Moving near light speeds, moving objects become much shorter.  Such “length contraction” is an experimental fact.   While the muons and I may have disagreed why they reached my experiment without decaying, we both agree on the important part:  They did.

Could speed be the secret to Dunbar’s quest for longevity?  Can physicists make fountain of youth by the slowing down time with speed?  Yes…but there’s a catch.  Even if we put you on a fast rocket ship, since time slows down, your metabolic rate slows as well.  Everything around you undergoes the same slower passage of time as witnessed by the rest of us.  So Leonard has it exactly right.   He would experience time unfolding just as if he were at rest.  In fact, Leonard could well say that he really is the one at rest and it is everyone else that is moving.

That’s some catch, that Catch-0.0000022 .

14 Responses to “S03E05:The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary”

  1. NiteSkyGirl Astronomy Blog Says:

    WOW FASCINATING READ!

  2. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    I’d just like to say that Monday nights with TBBT has become a tradition in my two physicist family. I do have one complaint though – I would like to see more physics geekiness and less comic book/star trek/whatever.

    I would also recommend to the writers that they read the Dirac biography “The Strangest Man.” They might find some clues for expanding Sheldon’s horizons.

  3. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    PS – We always look for and try to interpret the equations!

  4. roy_hu Says:

    I thought it was indicated that Leonard and Sheldon were professors, rather than postdocs?

  5. Thomas Says:

    Leonard and Raj are most likely postdocs. I’m not sure about sheldon, since in E3x04 he was able to employ Raj, which indicates that he has at least some own budget to spend.
    On the other hand, when they talk to theire Professor, they call him Professor … and he calls them Dr. Hoffstedter, Dr. Cooper, and *Mr.* Wollowitz. Therefore I’m rather sure, none of them is a professor.

    Cheers,
    Thomas

  6. roy_hu Says:

    I just started watching TBBT from Season 1, so obviously my knowledge is very limited. I believed Sheldon was a professor because a) he was once a visiting professor in Germany, and b) he’s meant to be such a genius so he should have already started his tenure track.

  7. Z Says:

    Based on recent episodes, I imagined Sheldon as a Research Assistant Professor and Raj as a longterm postdoc (lost his funding/fellowship?). Not sure about Leonard. Since Wollowitz is working on a government project he might be a glorified technician, maybe a P.I.

  8. Robert L. Oldershaw Says:

    I wonder if the writers will include mention of the new no-show results for “quantum gravity” reported by the Fermi gamma-ray team in the 10/28 Nature, or the 10/29 NYT?

  9. beth563 Says:

    Thank you for starting this. I know nothing of Physics, as my brain is more geared towards Languages and the Arts. However, I have understood several things that have come up in BBT, namely the Venn Diagram and Sheldon’s psychological experiment on Penny.
    I agree with previous posters who say there needs to be more Physics in the show, and a better understanding of what the boys DO at Caltech. We know what their area of study is, but what else?

  10. Uncle Al Says:

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2009/11/are-you-what-you-are-or-what.html

    Perhaps The Big Bang Theory has a new episode title awaiting, “The Hossenfelder Demurrage.”

  11. Ashish Says:

    Agree with CapitalistImperialistPig. Please have more of Physics/Maths geekiness, and characters’ emphasis on nit-picking grammatical mistakes and slightly less on comic-books.

  12. Traducción: “S03E05:The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary” « The Big Blog Theory en Español Says:

    […] Artículo original por David Saltzberg […]

  13. Naomi Says:

    I disagree – keep the geek, comic and gamer references. There’s plenty of physics in the show for one episode, and I’d rather they touch on a few concepts properly then throw extra physics in with less depth and consideration.

  14. Tradução: “S03E05: The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary (O Corolário da Arrepiante Cobertura Doce)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 19 de Outubro de […]

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