Messing With Time: Why The Flash is in Hell

clockInterfering with time can really make a mess of things. We’ve all thought about what might happen if someone travels in time – think movies like Back to the Future, Primer, or Terminator. But let’s take the question to the next level: what if instead of changing position in time – jumping ahead or back – we changed velocities? Would it still be a disaster waiting to happen if we speed up or slow down time?

What would it even mean to change the speed of time? Reading Sean Carroll’s “From Eternity To Here”, he makes an interesting point:

“We live in a world that contains all sorts of periodic processes, which repeat a predictable number of times in comparison to certain other periodic processes. And that’s how we measure duration: by the number of repetitions of such a process. When we say that our TV program lasts one hour, we mean that the quartz crystal in our watch will oscillate 117,964,800 times between the start and end of the show (32,768 oscillations per second, 3,600 seconds in an hour).

“As human beings we feel the passage of time. That’s because there are periodic processes occurring within our metabolism – breaths, heartbeats, electrical pulses, digestion, rhythms of the central nervous system. We are a complicated, interconnected collection of clocks.”

So speeding up time across the universe doesn’t make much sense. Every process would still happen at the same relative rate, including our thoughts and metabolism. Modern physics tells us that there isn’t an objective frame of reference – different objects can, in fact, experience different relative times.

The real question is what would happen if we speed up our own processes relative to everything else in the universe. We wouldn’t feel any different – the “internal clocks” Carroll talks about would all still be in sync with each other – but we would notice all outside processes happening much less frequently compared to our thoughts and motions.

But much like the dilemma facing Calvin and Hobbes, which way would you go? As I read Carroll’s book, I started to ask: If you could change your relative speed, would you want to be faster or slower?

The reason to speed yourself up is obvious: you get a comparative advantage over everyone else. Imagine being able to think more, run further, and react more quickly in the same duration of “external time”. Who wouldn’t want that?

But there are advantages to slowing yourself down, too. Slowing down your body’s processes would be like stretching your life experience over a longer period of external time. Any benefit you get from the rest of the world is amplified. Randall Munroe at XKCD seems to have thought about it before in his comic about ‘Time Vultures’:

And it goes beyond food – assistants, coworkers, and fellow citizens could accomplish more. You would get to take advantage of all the medical breakthroughs, technological advances, and political developments that people come up with during your “stretched” lifespan.

As I talked with my friends about the question, many of them brought up the same point: there’s a risk in permanently changing too far. And that brings me to my last point, that Barry Allen (alter-ego of ‘The Flash’) is arguably in a special version of hell. Yes, after being struck by lightning in his lab, he was granted superhuman speed. Sounds great, but if you follow the thought process to its horrifying conclusion you get “The Ballad of Barry Allen” by Jim’s Big Ego:

I’ve got time to think about my past
As I dodge between the bullets
How my life was so exciting
Before I got this way
And how long ago it was now I never can explain
By the clock that’s on the tower
Or the one that’s in my brain

And I’m there before you know it
I’ll be gone before you see me
And I’d like to get to know you
But you’re talking much too slowly
And I know you want to thank me
But I never stick around
‘Cause time keeps dragging on…
And on…
And on

The game theory dynamics are complex. It seems like to the extent that you’re competing with others, you want to be faster. To the extent that you’re cooperating/collaborating with others, you want them to be faster. And overarching all of it, there’s a coordination factor in that you don’t want to be too different from others.

At the moment, this is all just a fun thought experiment. But I know that the next time I’m bored in a meeting or enjoying a particularly nice moment, I’ll wish I could tweak my speed just a bit.

17 Responses to Messing With Time: Why The Flash is in Hell

  1. Paul Tierney says:

    I’ve got Parkinson’s Disease, which causes me to move (and think) slower and slower. I’d explain what that feels like but it would take too long to type and be a big effort. For the opposite effect, ask someone with ADHD hyperactivity.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      I’m sorry about the Parkinson’s, Paul. If you recommend any particular preexisting descriptions of the experience, I’d love to hear it!

  2. Zak Gillman says:

    Great post! I always enjoy it when writers throw in mentions of these unique problems, like when Geoff Johns had Kid Flash complaining of boredom after he finished reading the entire New York Metropolitan Library in less than an hour or Superman having to use his heat-vision just to shave.

    Of course, your comment on changing the speed of *other* events around the speedsters seems to not really be taken into account by the writers… People seem to stay at normal speed, and yet everything else seems to speed up: otherwise, why wouldn’t Kid Flash’s books have burned up as the friction from pages moved so quickly caused them to explode in flames? And, when moving faster than the speed of sound, how did the speedsters talk to each other when they *should* have been leaving the words hundreds of miles behind them? Not to mention the accidental problem of picking up an object at rest while at superspeed, which should accelerate it so quickly that the transfer of kinetic energy would cause it to immediately disintegrate.

    But eh, for all we know the DC Universe doesn’t use the same laws of physics that ours does. It’s fun to think about, though!

    “There is a man who moves so fast that his life is an endless gallery of statues…”. – Swamp Thing #24, “Roots”

    • Zak Gillman says:

      Oh, but to posit a new superpower: what kind of problems might you have if you were a psychological shapeshifter, like having an on-demand multiple personality disorder that allows you to adapt perfectly to your social surroundings? I’ve tried to consider how much it’d be helpful as a detective or scientist to be able to constantly swap internal points of view to get a closer-to-objective view of reality due to seeing from so many varied subjective points of view, but figure it’d be hard to keep one’s ambitions and motivations straight…

    • Jesse Galef says:

      I love that quote at the end.

      By the way, I want to make a special note of something my friend Seth Cottrell wrote for Ask a Mathematician, Ask a Physicist: if Santa really visits all the nice children in the world in one evening, how fast must his sleigh be going?

      “Traveling with an average speed of 17 million kph means that the back of Santa’s sleigh is in a hard vacuum. More than that, the heat energy generated by Santa’s trip totals about 2 x 10^15 tons of TNT equivalent, or about 40,000 metric tons of anti-matter (and 40,000 matching tons of ordinary matter). “Conventional” physicists would say that the surface of the Earth would be completely vaporized by this joyous and welcome yearly Yule Tide. What they don’t take into account is jingle-Bell’s theorem of quantum christmas, and a generous helping of X-mas miracles!

      It would take about 5,000,000 Santa’s (or about 10^22 tons of TNT) to completely destroy (disassemble) the Earth. 2 x 10^15 tons of TNT would just throw the top half mile or so into space. Happy holidays!”

      Be sure to read the whole piece, as there’s a lot more hilarious math and physics content.

  3. gwern says:

    > The game theory dynamics are complex. It seems like to the extent that you’re competing with others, you want to be faster. To the extent that you’re cooperating/collaborating with others, you want them to be faster. And overarching all of it, there’s a coordination factor in that you don’t want to be too different from others.

    That’s a very good way of phrasing it. I was getting at the same idea in but didn’t boil it down so well.

  4. Jim Kakalios says:

    Zak: Mark Waid, in his novelization of KINGDOM COME, addressed this point of friction with the regular universe. In this story the Flash is stuck ALWAYS moving at super speed. To put out a fire, he has to turn a valve on a fire hydrant a small partial turn – run off and do some other tasks, come back and turn the valve a little bit more, and so on. Then when the water “jets” out, he applies a force, pushing on the, to his frame of reference, solid water, such that with multiple pushes the direction of the water changes and arcs towards the fire. To ALWAYS be moving faster the basic time processes would indeed be a form of hell. Peter David invoked this in X-Factor to explain Quicksilver’s perpetual bad mood – his entire life was equivalent to standing in the slowest line at the DMV.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Hi Jim, I love that quote about Quicksilver. Just wanted to say that you’re doing an excellent job combining the science and fiction in a delightfully fun way. Thanks for spreading science communication!

      Since I know you did some consulting for Watchmen, I figure I’ll mention that I considered including Dr. Manhattan in this thought experiment. In the end he seemed sufficiently different from The Flash, but still raises questions of how isolating it can be not to travel in time with others.

      • Jim Kakalios says:

        Thanks Jesse. Regarding Jon Osterman, he appears to have gained access and independent control of his quantum mechanical wavefunction, as discussed in THE AMAZING STORY OF QUANTUM MECHANICS (Who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of shameless plugs?). As this wavefunction contains ALL information about a system as a function of space and time, he does not so much much faster or slower as does the Flash, but is cognizant of everything that has happened to him (as are we) and everything that WILL happen (which I would dearly love to know, at least, the identity of six numbers for the next PowerBall drawing). Though he also says at one point that he has observed particle reactions that happen so fast they can be doubted to have occurred. I suspect he is able to narrow his vision to observe particle/anti-particle fluctuations from the quantum foam.

        Ah, rambling now. Time for some non-quantum foam on a head of beer!

        Face Front, True Believer!

    • Zak Gillman says:

      I meant to reply to this years ago and only now ran across it again, so I can only hope for a reply…

      I see a large problem with Mark Waid’s idea: how does Flash communicate with others?

      If he is “ALWAYS moving at super speed”, then the sound waves that hit him are at SUCH a slow rate that the Doppler Shift means everything has a ridiculously sub-bass voice to him. He’d have to return multiple thousands of times per second to catch even the simplest phenome and his ear-drums would have to be mutated to understand language on this level. Not to mention his memory would have to span decades to understand even the simplest sentence!

      Speaking at super-speed seems even more implausible. The Flash would have to remember to come back to the same spot hundreds or thousands of times to make the tiniest hypersonic sound that, when compressed, could be a single word. His vocal cords would have to be incredibly mutated to make such high-pitched noises that, when slowed to our perception, would translate as human-comprehensible noise.

      This solution seems to create more problems than it solves.

      That said: it does make you wonder how AIs would ever learn to communicate with humans, considering their faster rate of computation and how frustrating it would be to wait on us humans to respond.

      That said: it makes you hopeful for future technology where we could directly stimulate each others’ hearing centers via our speech centers and not have to wait on the AMAZINGLY inefficient medium of sound. How much more could we convey if we didn’t have to wait on the sound to get from point A to point B? And moreover, since we can drop files onto peoples’ computers in a matter of seconds that have several hours of video and audio data, would we have to learn data at the garbage rate of 1 second per second or could we eventually take in multiple hours of data per second?

      (Probably shouldn’t have posted so many ideas on a dead blog… I miss the Galefs’ posts…)

  5. Chana says:

    So interesting! And I love that ballad.

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  8. Gotta love the common conceit, shared by Calvin there, that a good thing about traveling to the past would be the ability to observe history and thus learn it better, as if that were more efficient than getting the key points out of a few books.

  9. Chrysophylax says:

    There is a story by Eric Frank Russell called “The Waitabits”. It addresses the difficulties faced by humans in trying to make first contact with aliens that live at a vastly slower rate. I recommend it.

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