Watch The Mechanics Behind Time Travel

The effects of time dilation on various spacecraft is visualized in Chomko & Rosier's 'Relative Clocks.'
November 11, 2016, 6:15pm

Relative Clocks. Photo credit: Richard John Seymour

Einstein's theory of relativity is not an easy concept to grasp for the layperson. Everyone knows the famous E=mc2 equation but understands less so the implications of it and what general and special relativity mean for the physics of space-time. A new installation, Relative Clocks, by artists Chomko & Rosier and commissioned by the UK Space Agency aims to highlight, in a very immediate and simple way, one of the notable effects of Einstein's theory, the concept of time dilation.


Time dilation relates to how general and special relativity effects the flow of time. Einstein theorized that time is not fixed, well that both time and space are not fixed, instead they are malleable and will vary depending on the effects of gravity and motion—and time dilation is proof of that theory. If you took an atomic clock up into space or up a mountain the length of a second will differ, it can become shorter or longer, depending on the impact of gravitational fields and the velocity you were traveling at.

Relative Clocks. Photo credit: Richard John Seymour

"We were tasked with how do you engage the public with the research of the UK Space Agency," Matthew Rosier explains to The Creators Project. "They do a lot of gravitational research, microgravity, especially on how astronauts perform in space and as part of that they explore atomic clocks and the different between an atomic clock in space and an atomic clock on earth. So what these [Relative Clocks] are essentially is, if you had taken an atomic clock, put it on the ISS on the day it launched and took it back, that's the difference you would see if you compared it to an earth clock."

For their installation Chomko & Rosier chose four different space crafts that are orbiting earth—the Syncom 3 satellite, the ISS, the Hubble Telescope, and the Prospero satellite — to show how time has either slowed or quickened for them compared to earth time. The way they calculate that uses something called the Schwarzschild metric, a solution to Einstein's general relativity equations, using data compiled by physicists Tom Vaughan and Chris Haynes which accounted for both gravitational and velocity time dilation on the craft.

Relative Clocks. Photo credit: Richard John Seymour

In the installation, the spacecraft are represented as four clocks each with two ticking second hands, one blurry hand which is constant on all four and this shows the relative earth time, and another hand which ticks either in front or behind the earth hand to show the time dilation — how much the craft has traveled either forward or backward in time. Each clock is equipped with a machine, an actuator that can control each hand independently and measures in nano-seconds, and each is updated daily to show the — albeit very slight — effects of time dilation on each craft.


The Hubble space telescope takes about six weeks to change one millisecond. Which isn't a lot, but over the years (there are 22 million seconds in a year) that adds up. From the installation, the Syncom 3 satellite has been up in space the longest, it was launched in 1964, so it has the biggest offset from earth time, it's  traveled forward in time nearly a second since it's been in orbit.

Relative Clocks. Photo credit: Richard John Seymour "Initially we found some data and we visualized ISS and it was very strange to actually visualize it as ticking," notes Rosier. "It didn’t have as much meaning in data, you just saw the offset value, but there’s such a natural human recognition to the ticking of a second hand, that I think it has this kind of power within it to make it tangible. General and special relativity are right there.”

The clocks will be on display at Decima X, 65 Decima Street, London, SE1 4QR over the weekend, but they are set up to run for the next 10 years. Chomko & Rosier hope they will find a longer term home at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London home of the Prime Meridian and the center of world time.

Learn more about the work and the concept of time dilation in the video below.

Relative Clocks by Chomko & Rosier is on from November 11 to 13th at Decima X, 65 Decima Street, London, SE1 4QR. Learn more about Chomko & Rosier's work here. Learn more about the UK Space Agency here.


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