Fun Fact - Trouble in a Flash

Special relativity describes conditions wherein two identical clocks can both run slower than each other. The math applies only if the clocks are moving relative to each other, but not accelerating. General relativity allows for acceleration, from the thrust of a rocket engine or from gravity itself. It is thus more "general".

Put simply, acceleration slows down time. Let's apply this to the gravity of the earth. Take your clock off of a high shelf and place it on the floor. It now runs slower than it use to, just a hair slower. Carry it up to the roof and it runs faster. Three identical clocks, on the floor, on the shelf, and on the roof, run at different rates, even though they are motionless relative to each other. Once again the clocks are merely pawns in a larger chess game; time itself slows down as you move towards a gravitational source.

The math that justifies this is beyond anything I understand, but some people understand it, and others have verified it experimentally using precise atomic clocks. These nanosecond time pieces do indeed run faster when lifted away from the earth on airplanes or the Space Shuttle.

If you're looking for some intuition without the math, then picture the atoms vibrating within their molecules. These vibrations are the essence of heat, which is a form of energy. Atoms vibrate faster when an object is heated, and if you apply too much heat the atoms break apart and the object melts. Now, instead of cooling an object, lower it down into a gravity well, perhaps towards the center of the earth. The object is the same temperature, yet the atoms move more slowly from your perspective. Consistent with this, the radiation emitted from the object is "red shifted" towards cooler frequencies. If it was glowing white hot at your elevation, it might glow orange, or red, or infrared when lowered into a gravity well. Energy has been removed as the object descends, and this reduction in potential energy is indicated by slower motions at the atomic level.

In fact the change in time produces the gravitational force. An object rolls downhill because it has less energy at a lower elevation, because time runs slower near the earth, because the earth itself, by virtue of its mass, distorts time. All this is an oversimplification, but it is a place to start. For instance, I haven't addressed why mass should distort time, or if you prefer, why mass warps the fabric of spacetime, producing the force that we call gravity. For now, let's just say that it does.

As mentioned in the previous article, you could stand next to a black hole having a million times the mass of the sun and watch the universe run down. This is a form of time travel into the future, and it is theoretically possible, though it would require a huge amount of energy. How would you stand next to a black hole without falling in, and how do you hold up to a million G's of force, and how do you pull away again? This is beyond any technology we can foresee in the near or distant future, and the closest black hole with sufficient mass is 26,000 light years away, so it's not going to happen.

What if there was some other way to create a local gravity well and slow down time? Then, perhaps, the following science fiction story would be possible.

We don't eat together as a family very often. Our therapist says this is a bad thing, but reality has a habit of creeping in and sullying the ideal world you read about in those psychology textbooks. I am on two different sports teams at Baker High, and who knows when I will get home on any given night. (Ironically, the therapist says my extra-curricular activities are a good thing, so go figure.) Dad misses dinner too; he works late more often than not. And my younger sister Jane is the pickiest eater on the planet. Half the time she turns up her nose at the evening meal and makes herself some Kraft Mac and Cheese at her leisure, you know, the single serving boxes. Mom tolerates this behavior as long as Jane cleans up after herself, which she usually does. So it was a bit unusual when we were all sitting at the dinner table together, all eating the same meal. Homemade tacos I think it was, something everybody likes. Dad was reaching for seconds when he turned to us, his brown eyes looking over the top of his thick glasses.

"Remember, you kids are going into stasis Saturday morning."

Of course - the Las Vegas vacation. It completely slipped my mind. This was another one of those "good ideas" from our therapist. Let the parents have some quality time together without the kids. And since we have a private stasis chamber in our house, so much the better. We step in and close the door, and in a few minutes a week has gone by. They return from Las Vegas, open the door, and out we come - ready to participate in a happier, more harmonious relationship with our parents, who are rested and refreshed. Never mind that I squander most of my winter break in stasis. Oh well - we agreed to it, my sister and I, but then I forgot, and I asked Melony out Saturday night. She said yes, and my heart still skips a beat every time I think about it.

"Oh - but - Dad - I wanted to do something Saturday night. How bout if we set it for automatic activation and we step inside Sunday morning? You come home Thursday as planned, and let us out, and it'll be perfect."

"What's happening saturday?" he asked with a frown.

"Well, I forgot to tell you, but I asked Melony if we could go see that new movie, and she said yes, and ..."

"What movie?" It was Mom's turn to frown.

"You know, where the house is run by an alien life force, and locks her inside, and ..."

"Yeah, it's a remake, and not a very good one. The original movie is called the Demon Seed. I'll order it for you."

"They shouldn't be allowed to remake great movies." added my father, tossing in his unsolicited opinion.

"Yeah - ok - but what about Saturday night?"

Dad made a snap decision before Mom had a chance to give in. "I don't want you footloose and fancy free on Saturday. You'll conveniently forget to step in on Sunday morning, and you'll be running the show for five days." He pushed his thinning brown hair to the side. "I don't think so."

"But Dad!"

"Remember, you agreed to this. Besides, you can always take Melony next Saturday. My treat."

He was obviously making an effort; trying to meet me halfway.


I started assembling another taco with just the right mix of cheese and tomato when a knock interrupted our dinner. Mom went to the door, and my eyes followed her out of curiosity. It was Mrs. Talburt from nextdoor, a close friend and a frequent customer. She had her babe in arms, and Aaron was crying to beat the band. Aaron suffered from unremitting colic, which is why the weary Talburts were willing to give us $50 once or twice a week for the use of the stasis chamber. Sometimes they went out - sometimes they went home and slept. Actually, we had people coming and going all the time. The chamber had paid for itself a year ago, and was now garnering a handsome profit. Dad charged top dollar to strangers, but he often gave his friends a break. He could get 2 or 3 hundred for a night in the chamber, but he only asked the Talburts for $50.

It still fascinates me - the chamber that is. I got up from the table and watched Mom place Aaron gently on the floor of the enclosure, its sterile white walls gleaming back at us. The tiny infant made the chamber look huge, but it is, in reality, no larger than a small closet, and Jane and I have to scrunch together when we are both inside. It's not for the claustrophobic. That's why the manufacturers installed two view screens, one in the back wall and one in the door. These are simulated windows, looking out onto the back yard and the livingroom respectively. I usually looked at the yard, watching the sun race across the sky, while Jane looked at the livingroom, hoping the cat would lie still long enough to present something more than a blur. Jane, barely 12 years old, understands why they can't be true windows, i.e. simple panes of glass. She tried to explain it to me one day, her blonde curls bouncing up and down for emphasis.

"It's a simple consequence of general relativity. Don't you see? The chamber puts us at the bottom of a gravity well. The walls of the well are miles high, compressed into a thickness of just two millimeters."

"Huh?" I wasn't sure how miles could equal millimeters. She loved science and math, and her blue eyes sparkled as she described the interactions between gravity and light.

"Suppose there was a double pane window in the chamber, and a beam of red light enters the window from outside. It falls down the gravity well, like a rock falling into a black hole. But light picks up speed by increasing its frequency. Between the two panes of glass, the light would become green, then blue, then ultraviolet, and finally an X-ray. You would be killed by the radiation. Even the thermal radiation of the environment is accelerated to dangerous levels. So, a simple glass window is impossible. Instead, the inner wall of the chamber absorbs all this accelerated radiation, and vents the energy out into the back yard as waste heat through a super air conditioner. That's why it draws so much electricity. That's why the power company had to run a separate 440 volt line to the house."

I simply nodded as a glimmer of understanding forced its way into my brain. She really was a good teacher. Her analogies, like miles of height compressed into a millimeter of wall space, were confusing at first, but they made sense after a while. I wondered where she would be in ten years? At NASA, building the next space probe, or at a university, teaching the next generation of engineers and scientists? Who could tell? She continued her explanation.

"Since simple windows won't work, they put in these view screens that show you what you would see if you were looking out the window. It helps a lot."

Indeed it does. Even a baby appreciates the virtual sunlight streaming in from outside. Mom closed the door and I could still hear Aaron's muffled cries, despite the near perfect vacuum that separated the inner and outer walls of the chamber. The sound was attenuated, but it found passage through the contacts in the floor. You had to be content with this attenuated audio, because there was no way to look inside, no corresponding view screen running in the opposite direction. And why bother? Once the machine was activated you'd only see a virtual statue moving at a glacial speed.

Mom flipped a switch on the wall, and the gauges jumped in response. Power consumption and spacetime warping rose in tandem as the baby's cries dropped to a deep rumble, like a tape played at slow speed. I could hear the individual clacks of the vocal chords as they slapped together, then silence. Aaron was frozen in time, as though he were lying next to a black hole.

"I'll be back in the morning to pick him up." said Mrs. Talburt. "And thanks again."

"No problem. Remember, the kids will be using the chamber from Saturday to Thursday." Mom motioned towards me with her arm.

"I know." Mrs. Talburt handed Mom a fifty. "We'll be fine. We just need tonight, a night of quiet, a night together, just us." She smiled, knowing her baby would be safe while she was free of all responsibilities for the next 12 hours.

Well that was it; there was nothing more to see or hear. I finished my tacos, did some calculus homework with Jane's help, and went to bed early.

The next day I ran into Melony in the cafeteria and I asked her if we could postpone our date until next Saturday. "No problem." she replied. She gave me a quick kiss and trotted off to class. Once again my heart skipped a beat.

I was the first one in the shower on Saturday morning, with Jane next in line. True, it was only five minutes in the chamber, but we would be pressed close together - definitely in each other's air space. We assumed our usual positions, with me looking out the back and Jane looking out the front. Mom closed the door gently, and called out in a loud voice. "You kids all right?"

Jane replied, since she was facing forward, though I don't know if that really makes any difference. "Fine Mom."

Suddenly the sun started moving, climbing the sky and approaching the zenith. The flowers in Mom's garden opened before my eyes, their petals spreading wide. Thirty seconds later the sun was slipping out of sight in the west, and the moon was rising in the east, a big bright full moon that lost some of its beauty in the digital reproduction. The house made soft contracting sounds as its exterior cooled in the night air. If I held my breath I could hear the furnace turn on and off, on and off - click clack click clack click clack. The moon arced across the sky, and the morning and the evening were the first day.

Sunday passed without incident, as did Monday, and most of Tuesday. But Tuesday night, technically Wednesday morning, the unthinkable happened. This was two years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Jane has told her side of the story so often I almost have it memorized.

"It was night, the moon shining in the livingroom window, and the cat was asleep. I could see him curled up on the couch. He switched positions every couple of seconds. It was funny; he'd flip in an instant, like you replaced one picture with another. I looked over at our grandfather clock; the minute hand spun all the way around in just under three seconds while the hour hand advanced from 12 to 1. Time was flying by. The pendulum was a blur, like the blades of a fan. In house time each tick tock was one second, and the pendulum certainly displaced air, so at this speed the oscillating pendulum should create a high tone with a frequency of 1.4 khz. I closed my eyes and held my breath, and listened for the sound, just a bit higher than the traditional beep of a computer. It was clearly audible, singing in the night. When I opened my eyes again it was nearly 3 A.M. Then, in the span of one second, you know, like saying one Mississippi, the top half of the room grew dark. The face of the clock was obscured, along with the top half of the window. I'm sure the smoke detector was screaming loud and clear, but the frequency was shifted several octaves above human hearing. Not that we had time to react to an alarm in any case. We did hear something else though, something I've never heard before nor since. Like a thousand little snaps in quick succession. They tell me these were the pops of steam splitting wood apart. You hear one every few minutes in a campfire; imagine compressing them all together in time."

"What happened next?" Jay Leno asked. Jane doesn't mind these public appearances; I just want to be left alone.

"During the next second I saw orange flames race across the livingroom, spreading from right to left. The bottom half of the screen was orange and the top half was black. It happened just that fast, 24 minutes in one second. I didn't know whether to push the emergency stop button or not, but it didn't matter."

That was Jane's perspective. I was blissfully unaware of the living, breathing animal that lapped at the door of our tiny enclosure as I watched the moon float across the sky. Unaware, until the moon stopped in its tracks and the power failure alarm sounded. The unit had just enough battery backup to pull us gently out of the gravity well and back into normal space, whereupon the screens went dark.

"There's a fire out there?" Jane screamed.


"The entire livingroom's on fire - I saw it through the window before it went dark."

There was no denying it - I could hear the roar of the flames just outside the door. And that was our only way out. We stood in stunned silence for several seconds, which were now true seconds. With the mega air conditioning shut down, the chamber was getting hot.

"I don't think we should open the door." stated Jane flatly, as though she were solving a math problem as fast as she could while the proctor looked on. "But ..." she paused. "Either the chamber walls will protect us, or we can make a mad dash through the flames and out the front door, or we'll be rescued."

"Or we'll die inside a burning house." I thought to myself. That was choice D, a choice that Jane certainly recognized but was unwilling to voice. I wasn't an expert on the technical construction of the chamber, but I knew choice A was not an option. This wasn't a fire safe; it wasn't built to those specifications. Jane came to the same conclusion.

"These metal walls will probably melt in the next five minutes."

"Thanks." I mumbled. I knew what she was thinking. She was considering option B. Could she fling open the door, crouch down, run through the flames, open the front door, and burst out into the night air and survive? She had already played out this scenario based on the last images she saw on the screen, and the prospects weren't good. Every time she considered the plan, it led to almost certain death. But standing here and doing nothing - that was almost certain death too. So she stood frozen in fear. I could feel her heart pounding against my back - or maybe it was my own heart racing within my chest. I think she was actually ready to make a mad dash. I think she was about to announce, "On three I'm opening the door and running like hell. You follow, or you're dead for sure. Take a deep breath and hold it. Here we go. One ... two ..." I envied her wet hair, still dripping from the shower. It would protect her head for one or two seconds - perhaps enough time to reach the front door. It's been two years, and she still won't say whether she was getting ready to run. In retrospect, it would have been a mistake, but who knew? Sometimes the right answer can be wrong, and the wrong answer can be right. In any case, we stood motionless in a vice of terror that few people have ever known. I could taste the fear in my mouth - the fear of an agonizing and inevitable death. It tasted like metal, perhaps copper or zinc.

I heard a crash, and I wondered if the roof collapsed on top of us. Then I heard a voice. "Anybody in there?"

Jane knocked hard on the inside of the door. "In here. In the chamber, just across from the front door!"

Loud hissing sounds betrayed an angry mix of fire and water. The high pressure hose beat a path through the flames from the front door to our small sanctuary. The fireman spoke to us in a loud voice, which was muffled by his mask and our chamber door.

"I'm going to count to three and open the door. When I do, you need to drop to the floor immediately. The air at your head is several hundred degrees. You should also hold your breath. There's a lot of smoke, even near the floor. Crawl as fast as you can straight across the room and out the door. I have a powerful flashlight; I'll show you the way. Just follow me. Do you understand?"

"Yes." said Jane.

"Take a deep breath, and another, and another. Now hold it. One ... two ... three!"

The door flew open and Jane fell to the ground as though she'd been shot. My reflexes weren't as fast. Either that or I had to wait for Jane to physically move out of the way before I had room to fall. In any case, the extra few seconds came at a price. Superheated air rushed in and scorched the back of my neck, my face, and my upper arms. I yelled, having forgotten the importance of holding my breath, as I fell to the floor behind Jane. She was scurrying out into the livingroom; I turned around and followed. The carpet felt like it had just been steam cleaned and the company forgot to suck up the hot water. My hands and knees would scald if I didn't move fast. I scampered forward, my lungs crying out for air. A quick breath pulled corrosive smoke into my throat and trachea, triggering an involuntary coughing reflex. Fighting the urge to breathe again, I moved forward, following the fireman's flashlight. The ceiling broiled from above, and the walls pressed their heat into my exposed flesh. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. Finally I crawled out the front door and onto the cement porch. Cool night air poured over me and rushed into my lungs. Wonderful glorious cool air! Jane beckoned from the driveway, and I ran towards her.

"Get in." The ambulance driver pointed to a horizontal stasis chamber with a comfortable mattress inside.

"No thanks!" I blurted out.

"Please - it's for the best."

In theory he was right. Patients were routinely transported to the hospital in stasis. No bleeding, no hypoxia, no shock, no worsening trauma. The body was frozen in time while the med tech ran complete CT and MRI scans. The ambulance could take its time driving to the hospital, no sirens, no lights, no dangerous high speed maneuvers. When they reached the emergency room the surgeon could take his time and develop a plan. Once the OR was ready, the patient was moved out of stasis and onto the table, where he would receive the best possible medical care. A wonderful system, but I just couldn't climb into another stasis chamber, Not then, not ever.

"My injuries aren't life threatening. I'll make it to the hospital. Just drive!"

The fireman who had rescued us looked over at the ambulance driver and nodded. "He'll be all right. Just do as he says."

The driver turned back to me. "Ok, you're the boss. You can ride up front."

I turned around at looked back at our house. Flames poked out of the front door, the livingroom fully involved once again. Three firemen ran back to the house with hoses on their shoulders, ready to battle the blaze. They would eventually squelch the flames, but the house was a total loss. No matter - Jane and I were safe. I climbed into the passenger seat and leaned back, only to bolt forward again as my neck touched the fabric. "Jesus! You got anything for pain?"

The doctor in the back rummaged about in his kit. "We usually just toss the person into stasis, but I think I have something that will help." He pulled out a few items as the driver put the car in gear. "We use them when the patient is trapped, or stuck, and can't be brought into the ambulance right away." Another minute of searching seemed like an eternity. "Here - hold out your arm." He gave me an injection, and within a couple minutes the pain began to subside.

"You're a lucky boy." commented the driver, his eyes still on the road. "Your neighbor, what's her name?"

"Mrs. Talburt."

"Right. Mrs. Talburt was up at 3 in the morning with her baby, and just happened to look out the window. She saw the fire and called us right away. Told us you were in stasis, and where to find the chamber. Lucky for you the baby was crying at just the right time."

"Yeah." I didn't tell him that Aaron often cried in the middle of the night. Nothing unusual there, but yes, very lucky indeed.

We have a new house now, and no, it doesn't have a stasis chamber. We're old enough to take care of ourselves, and besides, I refuse to step into one of those things.

Jane has become a bit of a celebrity, appearing on the Tonight show, and even testifying before congress. The first bill, a proposed ban on private stasis chambers, died a quiet death in committee. Some senators already have one in their homes, and the rest want one. It's the world's most convenient babysitter - far to useful to be without. But the second bill sailed through congress and was signed into law last year. All stasis chambers that hold human beings must be equipped with smoke detectors that are linked directly to nearby fire stations. The first whiff of smoke notifies the fire department and turns off the unit, giving the occupants time to escape. It's a good law; it already saved the life of a young girl in Arizona.

As for me, my burns healed quickly, only first degree, but the PTSD persists. I can still picture the flames engulfing the livingroom at warp speed while I stand helpless, waiting for the end. I relive it in my dreams, but not as often, and it's not as intense. The Forget Pills are helping. People ask me if I will have a stasis chamber in my home someday, when I have children. Probably yes. The demands of 24 by 7 childcare will wear on me and win the day. But I don't think I'll ever go off to Las Vegas and leave the kids unattended.

Further Reading

An introduction to general relativity