(Submitted September 02, 1997)
My husband and I both have Applied Physics degrees and
studied the theory of relativity in college. We went to see
"Contact" the other day in which Jodi Foster discovers plans
for a space transport. The theory of relativity states that
a person in space will age less than a person on earth; in
other words, time moves slower in space, relative to earth.
In this movie, based on Carl Sagan's book, Foster's trans-
port capsule drops through a gyroscope-like accelerator and
is enclosed for approximately a half a second. Her experience
is that she travels through a series of "worm holes"
and is gone for about 18 hours. Her recording device
recorded 18 hours of static in spite or her only being out
of reach for a split second. This story line is backwards to
Einstein's theory of relativity.
Our question for you is:
could you please explain the theoretical "worm holes" and if
they would account for the longer time spent in space
relative to the time that passed on earth.
I am sorry that I didn't make contact with you sooner, however your
question spurred a flood of diverse comments from our Ask an Astrophysicist
Team. I will not inundate you with the raw data, however I will
attempt to put them together into some sort of answer. So here it
I did not see the movie Contact, but from what you said, I would agree
with you that the movie got the relativity wrong. I do not know if the
plot device had Jodi Foster's character fly away fast (thus
accelerating greatly to start, stop and turn around) or if she went
close to a black hole (thus entering a very strong gravitational field)
or both. Either way the effect is basically the same -- time appears
to slow down from the point of view of someone in an inertial reference
frame. So, I agree, the clock should have shown less time than the
observers from the mother-ship (or however the story went) would have
On the other hand, strange gravitational field structures can do
strange things. This was pointed out by one member of my team who
From: David Palmer
Worm holes can be time machines as well as space machines. Thus you can
go through a series of wormholes and end up wherever and whenever the
wormholes are set up to take you (within limits).
Carl Sagan, when writing Contact, asked Kip Thorne (one of the world's
leading relativists) how to transport a person to distant stars, have
her come back to find that no time had passed on Earth (which is in
both the book and the movie).
From this question, Kip Thorne revitalized the whole modern field of
the study of wormholes, a field which had lain dormant for a few decades
until Thorne figured out how to make a wormhole people could actually
A good book on wormholes is:
Black holes and Timewarps, Einstein's Outrageous Legacy,
In addition, another member of our team wrote a really nice letter in
which I will include verbatim here.
Thank you for writing us with your question about the crucial plot
in the movie (and novel) 'Contact' with regards to an observed time
difference. Although it is realized in slightly different ways in the
novel and the movie, the essential point that, to Earth observers,
nothing happened while the cosmonauts (there were several in the book
rather than just Dr. Arroway in the movie) traveled for some time and
arrived at a destination which they were also at for some time. I
don't recall the time they thought they were gone in the book (the
danger of borrowing books from friends is you can't go back and check
details five years later!), but certainly it was comparable to the
movie's depiction of eighteen hours. In both cases, it is a crucial
plot. Considering that Dr. Sagan is a knowledgeable and accomplished
astronomer, my own reaction without resorting to equations is to assume
he has something quite specific and physically correct in mind.
You are, however, correct about the interpretation of relativity. The
essential concept is that objects in motion with respect to each other
will observe different time frames. This was measured experimentally
some years ago when two identical high-precision atomic clocks were
synchronized and then one was flown on a high-speed plane and the
synchronization of the clocks checked. The flying clock observed less
time had passed in exact accordance with relativity (though the
difference is very minor: pilots are not getting a significant boost on
life by their choice of profession!). There are a number of other
types of high speed clocks which so the same temporal effects
(relativistic muons generated at the top of the Earth's atmosphere by
cosmic ray collisions can be observed at the surface of the Earth, even
though their decay life time is so short they should not be observed
save for the time dilation effect they experience due to their
near-light-speed velocity). Thus if the idea of relativistic motion
was intended in 'Contact', your point is correct: a speeding Dr.
Arroway (and recording gadgets she might be carrying) would record
less time as passing than observers on Earth.
However, the plot element which allows Dr. Arroway to travel to distant
destinations in the Galaxy is not a speeding spaceship, but something that
bears a strong resemblance to some modern physics ideas about worm holes.
Worm holes are hypothesized as possible consequences of certain
contemporary high energy physics theories. There is a good deal of
on the subject of worm holes, including some very readable resources such
Steven Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' and Lawrence Krauss' 'The Physics
of Star Trek' (which addresses the theory behind the worm hole used in
Deep Space Nine). Temporal flow in a worm hole need not necessarily match
that outside the worm hole, although I must admit worm hole theory is well
outside my field of study. Thus it might be possible for considerable time
to pass in the worm hole while less observed time occurs external to it.
the Contact plot might seem to be intact scientifically.
Or maybe not: Ellie Arroway also talks to a projection/simulation of
her father at the terminus of the worm hole network that brought her there.
This was not in the worm hole and appreciable time passed while she was
so unless the worm hole actually functioned as a short-range time machine
sending her back to a time perhaps eighteen hours earlier, the same problem
of time remains. One very weak speculation on this point might be that
is what happened. Some physics does seem to actually allow the
time travel. Perhaps this is what Dr. Sagan had in mind. It should be
that he was heavily involved in the production of the movie and it was in
post-production editing prior to his death. His wife, who is also well
in science, also worked very closely with the movie production. I
suspect that Dr. Sagan did have some very specific physics ideas in mind to
explain, or at least make possible, the temporal paradox you noted.
Alas, ultimately, though, the movie and novel are interesting pieces of
entertainment. Some contortions might make the physics of the plot work,
but at the same time: 1/ The canyon at the end of the movie in which Ellie
Arroway dangles her feet with VLA in the background exists... but it is
several hundred miles away from the VLA, and 2/ There is no straight road
in front of the U.S. Capitol also depicted near the end of 'Contact'. Now
THAT'S a physics error!
Thank you again for you insightful question that gave us something fun to
think about and debate.
for the entire Ask an Astrophysicist team