I’m watching a special on the History Channel that’s investigating physics from observations of the latest Star Trek movie. One statement was made that I think relates to understanding God. One of the contributing physicists made the comment that we don’t know why time dilation exists. This isn’t entirely true. He didn’t qualify this comment, but let me investigate it briefly and then turn to what this means for understanding God.
The speed of light is the speed limit of the universe despite theoretical speculations of warp fields and wormholes. The reason why is related to the production of electromagnetic radiation, aka “light”. Light doesn’t have mass. We can say that light transfers energy. More accurately, it is a pattern of energy manifest in multiple spacetime frames of reference. I’ll keep it as simple as possible:
Energy is transferred from particle of matter to particle of matter when those particles come close enough for their respective systems of forces to influence each other significantly. When a photon of light is produced, the particle that produced it approaches the speed f light and suddenly loses energy. That energy is transferred to the object the photon eventually strikes. As the particle that produced the photon approaches the speed of light in the process, the distance between it and the object that will eventually absorb the photon that is produced is diminished infinitely within the frame of reference of the originating particle. This is called distance contraction and is part and parcel of time dilation. So as far as the source particle is concerned, it hits the receiving particle and thus loses energy.
To the outside observer, no distance ever closed in. What happened is that time dilated for the originating particle and distance contracted. Once the energy transfer happened, the distance snapped back to “normal” and its temporal frame of reference became relatively aligned once again with its surrounding objects. But the distance contraction is represented to the outside observer as a photon and the observation of the originating particle hitting the receiving particle is represented as a difference of time related to the distance. This is the speed of light.
The reason we have time dilation is more easily thought about with a simple thought experiment. If Bonnie and Clyde drive by in their automobile and fire a gun down the road, the velocity of the bullet relative to Bonnie and Clyde is roughly the same as if the vehicle were not in motion. To someone standing by the side of the road, the bullet whizzes by at the velocity of the bullet if the vehicle were not in motion plus the velocity of the vehicle.
But light is different. If it were night time and Bonnie and Clyde had their headlights on, the velocity of the photons being emitted from the front of the vehicle would be precisely the speed of light. To the observer on the side of the road, the velocity of the photons would also be precisely the speed of light. So what happened to the speed of the vehicle? That’s where time dilation comes into play. There is a time differential between the vehicle and the observer on the side of the road that accounts for the difference due to the velocity of the car. That’s time dilation.
Now add to this that a vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is passing around us constantly in all directions. We perceive a relatively uniform temporal frame of reference. However, it is anything but uniform. On the subatomic level, time is extremely volatile and changing. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to perceive anything around us. The chemical processes that make our bodies work couldn’t happen. We wouldn’t be able to see the world around us. There would be no life.
Where to go from here? I could talk about creation and how this applies to developing cosmologies. I could talk about how this isn’t often applied very well when people consider the various speculations regarding the beginnings of the universe. But I want to make another observation regarding God’s revelation of himself.
What I’ve written above in very simple and short order is understood by very few people, including some physicists who are interviewed by TV shows. The reason is that most people find it acceptable to relate to and survive in the world with the mere macroscopic perceptions available to us. Most people couldn’t tell you how a simple radio works, but they know how to use one.
God revealed himself to us in a very practical way. In this way, even many intellectually challenged people can grasp the basics about God. However, the depth of information included is enough to make the brightest among us wrestle with some of the issues he revealed to us. Most people are able to function quite well with the information God has provided although some concepts are difficult and present apparently conflicting concepts.
The fact is, God knows the range of intelligence of the creatures that bear his image and planned on giving us all enough to warrant a knowing faith as well as keep us learning about him for a lifetime. The Great Commission is more than simply leading someone into the Kingdom. The Great Commission is more than simply teaching a new believer the basics. We are all to be disciples until we pass from this world.