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Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


Time and Eternity:Creation and the Theory of Relativity

Chapter 1

Historical Background

     IT WILL BE convenient in this study to consider the matter under two headings, one of which is strictly in the realm of physics and the other in the realm of philosophy. The first is the relativity of time, and the second is its co-existence with the created order. Or to put it a little more elaborately, the first consideration is how fast time really goes and whether it has a fixed speed independently of experience. And the second consideration is what happens to experience in the total absence of time. The first question involves us in a brief historical review which will prepare the way for a survey of some important passages of Scripture that involve the second.
     In spite of what has been said above about the dangers of using analogies, even a historical sketch of this subject has to depend to a large extent upon analogy. It used to be thought that light was, as it were, instantaneous. No sooner did a man switch on his flashlight than the beam hit the wall. But in the seventeenth century, an astronomer named Ole Roemer (1644-1710) found that eclipses to the moons of Jupiter occurred sixteen minutes earlier when Jupiter and the earth were on the same side of the sun than when on opposite sides. He rightly concluded that light was not instantaneous. The difference in distance between the earth and Jupiter in the two situations made the light late in arriving, for it was actually taking time for it to travel over the intervening gap. He calculated that the moons circling the planet took so many hours to travel round once, thus establishing a regular time cycle for eclipses. These eclipses could then be clocked, and by projecting the time interval, could thenceforth be guaranteed to occur regularly over any number of years providing it did not slow down.
     However, it was found that when the planet Jupiter was on the other side of the sun from the earth, the time sequence was thrown out and the eclipses were sixteen minutes late. Sixteen minutes is 960

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seconds. The orbit of the planet gave the difference in the distance when on the same and on the opposite side of the sun. This distance divided by 960 revealed that the speed of light must be approximately 186,000 miles per second. His discoveries were published posthumously in 1735. Subsequent experiments gave a more accurate figure of 186,319 miles per second
     This discovery was very quickly seen to be the possible answer to another question which had been troubling astronomers for some time. This question had to do with the speed of the earth through the supposed ether. And this second question took a form something like this: because light and heat reached the earth from the sun, it was assumed that some kind of medium existed to convey the waves. However, if this medium had any kind of "substance," it seemed obvious that the earth would burn up as it raced through it in its circuit around the sun. The problem was to find a medium real enough to convey waves, but thin enough to offer no resistance to the passage of a body through it.
     But this contingency led to a further question: Was this medium stationary with respect to the universe, pervading it uniformly in every part of it, like a sea in which the stars plowed their way? In which case the actual speed of the earth relative to the universe and to all other moving bodies in it ought to be discoverable. To determine this was very desirable. Our sun with all the other stars appears to be rushing madly outward as the universe expands. This assumption is based on certain observations which we do not need to enter into here; it is sufficient to say that the distance between other galaxies and our own seems to be increasing as the periphery of the universe is enlarged. However, this increase in distance could mean that we might be chasing these remote galaxies but losing in the race, like a dog chasing a car. Or they may really be chasing us while we make our escape. All that we know about it is that the distance between these systems appears to be growing gradually greater. But if the ether is stationary, it would be possible to discover who was chasing whom, and absolute motions could be calculated
     A man who strolls the deck of a modern liner may be travelling relative to the vessel at two miles per hour. If the boat is at rest on the St. Lawrence, this is his absolute motion and direction with reference to the river. If the boat begins to move at 15 knots, the whole problem changes. His speed relative to the boat is still 2 m.p.h., but to the river may be 13 or 17 knots depending on the direction of his walk. If he happens to be crossing the boat from side to side, his motion relative to the river is 15 knots one way and 2 m.p.h. in a

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perpendicular direction. When the current of the river is taken into account, all these speeds are affected and altered relative to the shore and unless he is in sight of some object on the shore which he knows to be stationary, he can never determine his actual speed with respect to the earth itself. But when the motion of the earth around the sun and the sun among the stars has also to be considered, his absolute motion becomes exceedingly difficult to determine, because there is no fixed point on the "shoreline" of space by which it can be gauged. It had been hoped that the ether might provide this gauge.
     If we know that a wind is passing us at 60 m.p.h. and we have a wind gauge in our hands, we can from this knowledge discover our own speed. If the wind gauge indicates a higher figure, it is because we are travelling toward it. If the reverse, the opposite is the case. If there is no difference, we are probably stationary. We need to know only that the wind is passing us at a uniform speed, and the measurement of all subsequent movement is possible, given enough instruments.
     Every effort to demonstrate the reality of the ether had failed, and we therefore had no "sea" through which the earth was passing with all the other stars which could serve as a basis for establishing absolute movement. But suddenly it appeared that a new yardstick had been provided by Roemer's discovery. Without going into too many details, it seemed obvious that light passing through a current of ether would be either accelerated or slowed up if such a fluid medium did in fact exist to create a current, depending on which way the light was travelling.
     The history of the experiments which were at once undertaken to test this hypothesis is now probably quite familiar. The most famous investigation has since been known as the Michelson-Morley Experiment, and it was the findings of these two scientists which led Einstein in 1905 to formulate the first two principles of his Special Theory of Relativity. The historical background has been given clearly and accurately by R. S. Shankland in the British Journal Nature.
     A. A. Michelson was born December 19, 1852, in Strelno, Germany. When he was two years old, the family moved to California. In 1869 he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Here, in 1877, he made his first measurements of the speed of light and subsequently in 1880, while at the College de France, invented the Michelson Interferometer as a means for measuring the earth's motion through the ether. His interest in this problem had been

3. Shankland. R. S., "Michelson, A. A., 1852-1931," in Nature, vol.171, 17 Jan., 1953, p.101 ff.

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aroused by a letter from James Clark Maxwell, who emphasized that all experiments to observe the earth's motion through the ether, which depended on measuring the first power of the ratio of the earth's speed to that of light, were doomed to failure. He said, in effect, that no terrestrial experiment for measuring the velocity of light could ever detect the earth's motion in space. This was a challenge to Michelson. His first experiment was made in Helmholtz's laboratory in the University of Berlin. Both this and a second trial in 1881 gave a null result, although Michelson himself never considered it conclusive.
     In 1882 Michelson returned to Cleveland and made further measurements on the speed of light, obtaining a value of 299,853 plus or minus 60 kilometers per second, the most reliable measure until 1927. He subsequently met Edward W. Morley while attending a series of lectures by Lord Kelvin, and the two men collaborated in further experiments, using more refined methods.
     In 1886 Michelson and Morley together undertook the investigation which has since been known as the Michelson-Morley Experiment. All kinds of precautions were taken to render any results obtained absolutely conclusive. As Shankland put it:

     The work with this apparatus continued from 1886 until July 1887 and was conducted in buildings on the adjacent Case and Western campuses. The definitive null result obtained in these experiments led to profound changes in the development of Physics. . . .  It is needless to say that the most direct and now universally accepted explanation for the Michelson-Morley Experiment . . . is provided by the Special Theory of Relativity given by Albert Einstein in 1905.

     J. W. N. Sullivan has summarized the significance of these events. (5)

     Since then the Michelson-Morley Experiment has been repeated many times. In principle it is very simple, and consists in comparing the velocity of light in different directions. If the earth is moving through a stationary ether, it can be shown that two rays of light, the one moving in the direction of the earth's motion, and the other at right angles to it, should take unequal times to cover the same distance. But although the experiment has often been repeated, no difference has ever been found, although in some of these experiments the apparatus has been so delicate that a difference one hundred times less than the difference expected could have been measured. . . .
     The dilemma thus created is a very real one and the way out, which was shown by Einstein in 1907, is an effort of genius of the highest order. . . .  Einstein asserted that the velocity of light is always the same whether we measure this velocity from a system which is in motion or a system which is at rest. 

4. Ibid., p.102.
5. Sullivan, J. W. N., Limitations of Science, Pelican, London, 1938, p.69.

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     It often happens in the history of science that an effort to prove a theory fails in its immediate objective but leads by accident to a much more important truth. This was so in the case of the Michelson-Morley Experiment: it led ultimately to the discovery that light impacts an object at a uniform velocity regardless of whether the object is moving toward or away from the source of light at any speed less than the speed of light. Einstein's principle of constancy means that light rays if unobstructed have an observed constant velocity irrespective of the relative velocity between the observer and the source of light. Or to put it slightly more dramatically in the words of William Hudgings: (6)

     Einstein's declaration is that if two observers are on the opposite sides of the rotating earth, one revolving away from the sun and the other toward it, the instruments of each observer will indicate that the rays from the flash are travelling past him at exactly the same speed of 186,000 miles per second regardless of whether he is travelling towards or away from the sun.

     As it stands, this seems like an impossibility.
     With profound insight, Einstein had pointed out in so many words that while the speed of impact of the light must logically be different, it could not be measured because the rate of flux of time was changing in such a way as to conceal any difference in the two velocities being measured, and time is a basic function of velocity. It is as though two watches keeping different time, one faster than the other, were being employed in this one experiment, the one watch for the speed of light in one direction and another watch for the speed of light in the other direction, so that by taking into account the difference in the time intervals shown by the two watches which were not synchronized together, the logical contradiction could be explained. The question then arises which of the two watches was keeping "correct" time. Einstein's answer is "both" and "neither": there is no such thing as correct time in the sense of Absolute Time. The passage of time is entirely relative, and its rate of flow is established by each observer in each situation for himself -- quite unconsciously. In some way, Nature has contrived sometimes the word conspired is used to make it impossible to discover any absolute passage of time.
     However, in any given situation there is a measurable flow of time which makes possible the measurement of distance or volume or speed for that particular situation. Time therefore becomes the

6. Hudgings, W. F., An Introduction to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Haldiman-Julius, Girard, Kansas, 1923, p.23.

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fourth dimension of all measurements taken within the framework of the physical universe. Without time no thing exists, and without things time has absolutely no meaning. This brings us in a circle, back once again to the observation made by Einstein which we have already quoted: (7)

     If you don't take my words too seriously, I would say this. If we assume that all matter would disappear from the world, then, before relativity, one believed that space and time would continue existing in an empty world. But according to the theory of relativity, if matter and its motion disappeared there would no longer be any space or time.

     One is reminded of the profound insight of Augustine, that time began with Creation. Or, to use his own words, "Beyond doubt, the world was made not in Time, but together with Time." (8)
     As Sullivan says, Nature knows nothing of the distinction we make between space and time. The distinction we make is due to a psychological peculiarity of our own minds. This brings us to one consideration which is a little difficult to deal with because it is very easy to confuse the physical aspects of the Theory of Relativity with the psychological aspects. And these in turn have to be distinguished from what, for want of a better term, we can only refer to as the spiritual aspects. So we turn, first, to psychology and the realm of experience.

7. Einstein: quoted by Philipp Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, Knopf, New York, 1947, p.178
8. Augustine: De Civitate Deo, Book 11, chapter 6

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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