The Space Doctor’s Big Idea

Randall Munroe, creator of the web’s best comic, is also the creator of an awesome book called Thing Explainer. The conceit is that he explains complex scientific ideas using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. Today, he outdid himself and used this method to explain Einstein’s theory of general relativity:

It was the space doctor who figured out the answer. He said that if our ideas about light were right, then our ideas about distance and seconds must be wrong. He said that time doesn’t pass the same for everyone. When you go fast, he said, the world around you changes shape, and time outside starts moving slower.

The doctor came up with some numbers for how time and space must change to make the numbers for light work. With his idea, everyone would see light moving the right distance every second. This idea is what we call his special idea.

The special idea is really, really strange, and understanding it can take a lot of work. Lots of people thought it must be wrong because it’s so strange, but it turned out to be right. We know because we’ve tried it out. If you go really fast, time goes slower. If you’re in a car, you see watches outside the car go slower. They only go a little slower, so you wouldn’t notice it in your normal life; it takes the best watches in the world to even tell that it’s happening. But it really does happen.