As chance would have it, the night after writing this post about the equations shown in science fiction, an episode of Eureka aired in which Sheriff Carter was faced with the pictured board full of equations.
Carter, not the most technical of men, had to learn the equations in order to have chance at stopping a runaway time-loop. The equations looked familiar, so I checked in with Kevin Grazier, Eureka‘s science advisor, a JPL researcher, and a panelist on DISCOVER’s “Science Behind Science Fiction” Panel at this year’s Comic-Con. It turns out that Kevin actually wrote the equations, borrowed from a real class he gives that touches on the theories of special and general relativity. The equations refer to how time behaves in Einstein’s relativity theory, in particular, the phenomenon of time dilation. The neat part is that pretty much anybody who finished high school can master the math and science behind special relativity’s prediction of time dilation (as the title of this post says, if Carter can do it, so can you!).
Time dilation occurs noticeably when a object is moving close to the speed of light: imagine a spacecraft shooting by the Earth. From the point of view of someone standing on Earth, time dilation means that time is running slowly onboard the spacecraft. A second on the spaceship could be equal to an hour on Earth. (Time dilation has been experimentally verified using subatomic particles and particle accelerators, but the principle is the same.) The key is this one part of the board, which I’ve highlighted.