SSPecial Relativity

When I first checked the schedule on my blog day, I thought I had drawn the short straw. Instead of field trips or guest speakers, my day was going to be composed of sleep-deprived P-Setting and ODing sandwiched between two full three hour lectures. As a proud participant of nerd camp, the day itself seemed perfectly pleasant, but even a total nerd could tell that the blog about the day’s “adventures” would probably never be a hit thriller. But as Dr D’s lecture on special relativity reached its climax, I realised the genericness of my day also offered an opportunity: the true essence of SSP was most exposed when SSP was at its most typical. 

Dr. D’s special relativity lecture was a microcosm of the SSP experience. On a pedagogical level, I walked into the lecture thinking I understood (at least partly) Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, and walked out with my head spinning like a pulsar (I even emitted awed expletives at a constant rate). This is very reflective of the broader learning experience at SSP. Any knowledge or skills you thought you had become reframed and placed under a whole new light. I don’t think I really knew how to code before having to write my three body simulation, nor did I really understand how spheres worked before the lecture on spherical geometry (despite my own very spherical head). Most dauntingly, I’ve had to relearn how to staple my P-Set together. Apparently, the staple is supposed to go on the corner of the page instead of the middle. It only took me 3 weeks to figure that out.

 Dr. D’s description of time dilation is eerily similar to the way time passes at SSP. Just like how two people in frame of reference moving relative to each other will disagree on the passage of time, a few dozen minutes of P-Setting will magically translate into hours elapsed for everyone else. The time dilation effect even scales the same way as in Special Relativity. The closer one is to a deadline (the SSP analog to the speed of light), the more pronounced the dilation. I discovered I had spent an entire hour staring at a spreadsheet of observation data one night when I got too close to the 1:30 AM enforced bedtime. Even my fitbit has picked up on the time dilation. It’s been scolding me for my skyrocketing resting heart rate and plummeting sleep times, but I haven’t figured out how to explain to it that I am not suffering from heart disease or sleep deprivation, and really I’m just in a moving frame of reference.

The most distinctive and memorable feature of Dr. D’s Special Relativity lecture (and the SSP experience as a whole) is neither the head spinning nor the time dilation. After the typical flurry of whiteboard calculations and code debugging and image reductions, there comes a moment when the dust settles and all we are left with is a pure, unadulterated picture of the universe. In the lecture, that moment came when Dr. D told us to imagine the clocks of an alien civilization across the milky way accelerating away from us. After sifting through the abstractions of space time diagrams and Lorenz diagrams, realising that alien clocks sufficiently far away from us and accelerating away fast enough would run backwards was simultaneously mind blowing and glaringly obvious. That is the feeling which defines SSP. When all the messy terms cancel out in a derivation, when the planetary orbit simulation traces a perfect ellipse, when all the dark current and vignetting is reduced out of an asteroid image, you feel like you finally “get” one tiny, beautiful piece of the universe.

To conclude his lecture, Dr. D described the unique privilege attained by all physicists (he grudgingly included mathematicians as well). To be a physicist is to speak the language of the universe. And what a beautiful language it is.


What’s good everyone. I’m Leo from Burnaby in BC, Canada. When I’m not debating at a tournament or watching birds, you can find me rigorously following my sigma male daily routine. I’m currently in the third stage of grief (bargaining) mourning for the eventual end of SSP.