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It is said that we can verify time dilation by flying a very accurate clock on a fast jet or spaceship and prove that it registers less time than the clocks on earth. However, the clocks on earth would be moving relative to the clock on the spaceship, and since time always dilates and never goes faster regardless of the direction of relative motion, the clocks on earth should register less time than the clock on the spaceship.

Is this true? Whenever there is a fast-moving object such as a rocket do all clocks on earth really become slow?

If the rocket with the clock landed after moving at relativistic speed, would its clock and the earth's clock again show the same time since during its travel both appeared slow to each other?

Or is all this just an illusion, ie. the clocks just appear to be slow to each other but in actually run at normal speed, and neither is behind when the rocket actually lands?

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    $\begingroup$ I will add up to what mentioned below, that if you are using GPS in your mobile phone, then be informed that it uses time corrections due to this deletion ! so you need no super jets to experience that ;) $\endgroup$ – TMS Feb 4 '13 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @TMS Nice example.. $\endgroup$ – Schrödinger's Cat Feb 4 '13 at 19:57
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Time dilation is real and is measured every day. For example the lifetime of a muon produced in the lab at low velocity is 2.2$\mu$s. However the lifetime of muons generated by high energy cosmic rays in the atmosphere is around 11$\mu$s. Their lifetime is extended by their high speed.

Calculating the time dilation of a plane flying around the Earth is complex because you have to take into account the gravitational time dilation as well as the plane's speed. However it has been done, and indeed experiment shows that if you put an atomic clock in a plane you do indeed measure the predicted time dilation.

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  • $\begingroup$ And, gravitational time dilation would beat relativistic time dilation because spaceships move very slowly. $\endgroup$ – Schrödinger's Cat Feb 4 '13 at 20:26
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You're referring to what is commonly known as the twin paradox. The Wikipedia page provides several different ways of analysing the situation, but one way to look at it is this -

When the clock on the spaceship leaves earth, it'll experience an acceleration (even if it's a really small acceleration for a long time, or a huge acceleration for a small time) to reach relativistic speeds, and will experience an acceleration again when it has to turn around to return to earth.

Special relativity only claims that inertial frames of reference are equivalent. Since one clock experiences acceleration, and hence is in a non-inertial frame momentarily, the two situations aren't equivalent.

If you view the time dilation due to acceleration as a gravitational acceleration (principle of equivalence) and then do the calculations, the results obtained for both the clock on the earth as well as the clock on the spaceship agree. Again, the wikipedia link contains in detail this argument, as well as other arguments.

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If the rocket with the clock landed after moving at relativistic speed, would its clock and the earth's clock again show the same time since during its travel both appeared slow to each other?

For the rocket to depart from Earth and later return is a scenario in which a loop is closed.

A loop-closing scenario comes out symmetrical only when both participants have traveled the same spatial distance from departure to rejoining.

In an Earth-and-a-spacecraft-on-a-relativistic-journey scenario the spacecraft travels a much longer spatial distance than the Earth.

According to special relativity for the clock that has traveled a longer spatial distance less proper time will have elapsed, as seen when comparing clock times on rejoining.

The comparison on rejoining is a direct comparison, so it's clear and unambiguous. It's actually unhelpful to try an visualise what will be observed during the journey; because of transmission delays those raw observations are not a good perspective on what is happening.


It may be a surprise for you that difference in spatial distance traveled matters in special relativity. You may figure 'in space any individual spacecraft cannot count how many miles it has traveled'. And that is the case: any individual spacecraft cannot count its own mileage. More forcefully, no such individual mileage exists. However, special relativity does imply that you can always evaluate difference in spatial distance traveled. That difference in spatial distance traveled must be thought of as something that is relative between the two participants.

The relativity of special relativity is not a sweeping any motion is relative to something else. There is room for structure and buildup, giving rise to non-symmetrical scenario's, such as the one you ask about.

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In your reasoning, you're tacitly making an assumption of a universal time, or you're at least having doubts owing to this assumption. Your central issue seems to be that two relatively moving inertial observers would each see each other's clocks moving slower to one another. This only leads to a logical contradiction if one assumes that there is one, universal time measurement, which would be shown to be strictly less than itself by your argument. Your implied argument is perfectly sound; it's the assumption of universal time that is wrong. But time is relative: each inertial observer has their own observed time, and simulteneity is relative.

So what of the case where the observers meet up again at a common spacetime point, so they have different elapsed times since they synchronized watches at the former time when they were together? Well, they have different paths through spacetime, and their clocks measure the lengths of those paths. Inertial observers fare geodesics through spacetime, which means their path is of maximal length compared to neighboring paths (this is a slightly unwonted aspect of Lorentzian geometry: in Euclidean / Riemannian geometry we deal with geodesics that are minimum length paths) - so the stay-at-home, always inertial twin in the twin "paradox" ages most. This difference between measured pathlengths joining the same two spacetime events is overwhelmingly experimentally verified, as several of the other answers show. Look up the Hafele Keating experiment, or the Rossi-Hall experiment cited in John Rennie's Answer. You might also find some insight into a more experimentally-oriented conception of time, as I discuss here.

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No, time dilation is real. The universe does not follow the theory we assumed in the past where objects follow the Newtonian laws and light travels at a fixed speed in one frame of reference. If it did, an object going away from us would appear to have a slower system when it doesn't really.

It has been confirmed by observation that at each point in space-time, the universe locally follows special relativity. Special relativity predicts that time dilation is real. According to special relativity, there exists a frame of reference that each system dilates in time by a factor of $\frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - \frac{v^2}{c^2}}}$ and contracts in length by a factor of $\frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - \frac{v^2}{c^2}}}$. According to this answer, if you're travelling at constant velocity, there's no way to tell that you're moving in that frame of reference. You can consistently assume from your observations that you are not moving and what you deduce from the assumption that you are not moving is said to have actually happened in your frame of reference. You can sometimes make observations that wouldn't be possible at all if light travelled at a fixed speed and matter followed Newton's laws.

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"time dilation is a true physical phenomenon" As A body accelerates closer to the speed of light, all of its extremities and intrinsic energies expend velocity, "for example" if a star where traveling near the speed of light then the orbiting moon or planet would have to slow down in order to keep up with the star, or in this case, hands on a clock slowing not to exceed light speed for the rate it is travelling.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not an answer. You are rephrasing. Moreover sentences like it would have a difficult time keeping pace with the nucleus do not make any physical sense. $\endgroup$ – Tom-Tom Feb 10 '14 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ "Time dilation is a true physical phenomenon" is in fact a direct answer, but didn't think paraphrases where not acceptable, and keeping pace is was probably a politically in correct vernacular but I do not see what fails to make sense about my description. $\endgroup$ – GammaRay Feb 10 '14 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ You started off fine and then went way off the tracks with "the orbiting electron would have to slow down because it would have a difficult time keeping pace with the nucleus". That's just wrong. Your wording has nothing to do with it. $\endgroup$ – Brandon Enright Feb 10 '14 at 18:04

protected by Qmechanic Feb 10 '14 at 10:13

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