Sky and Telescope - July 2017 - 4
by Peter Tyson
A Taste of Relativity
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G A RY SERONIK
a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour."
This was Einstein's explanation of relativity for the layperson, and it
perfectly captures one aspect of stargazing that I ﬁnd remarkable: the
powerful sense one gets, under certain conditions, of the supremely
relative nature of time.
In March I had the pleasure of joining TravelQuest International's Southern Sky
Party in Costa Rica. Led by former S&T editor Gary Seronik, the trip offered attendees, all of whom live much farther north, the coveted opportunity to view many treasures deep in the southern sky. Early in the evening, Orion hung high in the west,
its celebrated nebula glowing invitingly, while Jupiter climbed the eastern sky with
its groupie moons. Around midnight the Southern Cross and Eta Carinae regions
beckoned irresistibly from above the southern horizon.
My favorite stretch was from the wee hours till dawn. In part that's because the
area's scorching daytime heat had ﬁnally given way to pleasant temperatures, and
also any lingering cumulus clouds from earlier in the evening had largely dissipated.
But it was mostly because of what lay high overhead: the glitteringly rich sky harboring the Sagittarius Teapot, the Scorpion's Tail, and
our galaxy's core. The False Comet! The Butterﬂy Cluster! The Lagoon and Triﬁd nebulae! There were more
Messier objects than you could shake a red ﬂashlight
at, and, to top it off, Saturn ﬂoated serenely near the
meridian. How could one not lose track of time?
Never while stargazing has time passed so swiftly as
during those early-morning hours. It didn't so much
go by as vanish in great chunks. On our ﬁnal night,
The Milky Way's central bulge
my journal shows I began a second round of stargazhigh above the Gulf of Nicoya
ing at 2:06 a.m. At 4:34, as dawn began its inexorable
daily vanquishing of the Milky Way, I wrote, "Want night to be longer! How did 2½
hours go by so quickly? Time evaporated like dew on hot stone."
Why does time ﬂy in such circumstances? Surely clocks continued ticking at the
same rate; it was my grasp of what they measure that had lost all reliability. How?
Was it total absorption in a cherished pursuit? Sitting alone at my 5-inch Vixen
reﬂector, with no conversation or other distractions to trigger a sensation of time
passing? A release of dopamine? I'll leave possible answers to the psychologists and
All I know is that on that ﬁnal evening on Costa Rica's Gulf of Nicoya,
the famous "arrow of time" seemed to denote not so much
direction as speed, as in a shooting arrow. The hours did
indeed pass like minutes.
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