Relativity and Dissertations

On September 27, 1905 Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. In this paper he presented the most famous equation in science, E = mc². But, did you know that he also explained why time moves so slowly when you’re working on your dissertation?…

If you’ve never read a popular account of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, I encourage you to do so. It’s fraught with mind bending questions, like:

If you’re on a train moving at half the speed of light and you turn on the headlights, how fast does that light travel from your vantage point on the train? How fast does it travel from an observer’s viewpoint at the train station?

The answer to both questions is the same. The speed of light is a universal constant to all observers no matter how fast they move relative to each other.

This leads to strange and unusual situations. For example, a traveler leaves his identical twin brother on Earth as he heads for the nearest star. Since stars are quite far away, the traveler has to move very fast to complete the journey within a human life span. The man on Earth sees twenty years pass before his brother returns. But, when they meet again, the traveler is much younger than his Earth-bound brother!


Yep, hundreds of experiments, though admittedly not with interstellar twins, have confirmed this strange result and more.

In fact, GPS systems only work because of relativistic adjustments to clocks in the positioning satellites. Not because the satellites are moving particularly fast, but because they are high above the Earth and experience less gravity.

What does this have to do with your dissertation?

Well, first thing is that I bet you’re glad to be able to go back to thinking about your dissertation topic again after trying to wrap your head around this stuff!

Second, if you’re like most dissertation students, you began your project “down in the trenches.” You worried about writing, this section, then that one, keeping your head down the whole time.

Instead, I advise students to take the ten-thousand-foot view. You should plan your project first. Floating high above the fray, you can really see where you’re going.

And, of course, Einstein’s theory dictates that clocks at a great height move slower than clocks on the ground. So, more time passes for the student in the trenches than the one who plans ahead! Q.E.D. Truuust me!

If you need extra support and guidance to make it to graduation, I may be able to help. If you'd like to find out whether you qualify for the support we offer throughout the dissertation process, then...

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Dr. Russell W. Strickland

RUSSELL STRICKLAND, Ph.D., has been referred to as a “rocket scientist turned management consultant.” In truth, he applies an eclectic body of work from astronomy and nuclear physics to dynamic inventory management to market research to each of his student engagements.

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