Hot Tubs, Special Relativity and Subjective Time

This post was written by Darcy Katzman on June 23, 2010
Posted Under: Product Development,View from Inside

Last night, I treated myself … no, I indulged myself … to a 30 minute hot tub under the stars. Alone, in my backyard, I stood looking up at the moon, and I was really struck by the contrast sitting in front of me: The moon, sitting motionless above me and my hot tub, travels around the Earth as fast as a speeding bullet (i.e. the mean velocity of the moon around the Earth is approximately 1km/s and velocities of rifle bullets range from .37 to 1.2 km/s).

If you really think about it, these two facts appear to be mutually exclusive. How can the moon sit motionless above me, yet at the same time travel as fast as a speeding bullet??!? Anyone trained in basic physics, science or mathematics has the answer, of course (See An Empirical Explanation of the Speed-Distance Effect). However, it helps to illustrate a fundamental truism that applies in every facet of our lives: Everything, and I do mean everything, is relative. Seemingly contradictory facts, concepts or ideas, can actually coexist or mean the same thing, and is influenced or observed through the lenses of our respective points of view, perspective, context or situation. And likewise, seemingly identical facts, concepts or ideas, can be different, depending on our respective points of view, perspective, context or situation.

We really came to grips with this notion under Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, which taught us that time itself could be relative (i.e. time dilation), depending on one’s velocity or proximity to gravitational bodies. Objectively, actual measurements of speed, time or size vary, depending on the speed, distance or proximity to a gravitational body of the observer. And, therefore, one person’s view of the world can be very different from another person’s view of the world, yet both be people can be factually and scientifically correct.

Subjectively, perceived measurements of speed, time and size can also vary, even when they really are the same.

Subjective measurements usually vary when compared to actual measurements, depending on an individual’s point of view, perspective, context or situation. Even assuming a measure of speed, time or size is objectively the same (which, as explained above, isn’t always the case), our individual perceptions are subjective. A retiree may feel they are “going fast,” when behind the wheel of a car, but the teenager behind them thinks they are “going slow.” An interesting article was published several year ago, about the concept of Subjective Time, and how our perceptions of time vary depending on how engaged we are, whether we’re doing something we’re interested in, and other factors. It’s a quick, but thought provoking article.

Subjective time, in the context of user experience on the Internet, is about reducing “boredom points” in user interaction. More fun, less yawn. It’s a powerful concept that is often overlooked, or marginalized, by focusing purely on the speed of a web-based application. In the context of federated search, the latest fad is on discovery services (see Discovering Discovery Services in the Federated Search Blog, which we sponsor). The primary motivator behind discovery services is speed, without an evaluation of individual context and subjective time. As an attorney, I could never rely on a search mechanism that only searched the meta data of articles, as I need to be assured I will find articles containing the specific search terms I desire, not just articles that happen to contain the search term within the title or abstract.

Interestingly, because of my background in federated search (i.e. my context and situation), I understand and appreciate the limitations of discovery services. Most students and professionals do not understand the nuances of true federated search versus a discovery service, and therefore their reliance on either google or a discovery service occurs at their peril unbeknown to them. Inadvertently, the ongoing pursuit to deliver google-like speeds has introduced hidden risks for users.

The incremental results feature of our product (see for an example), represents a concerted effort to reduce subjective time, while providing access to the original sources for true full-text searching.

This brings me back to my hot tub, contemplating the contrasts of the actual versus the perceived speed of the moon, and how we as individuals make measurements based on our respective points of view, perspective, context or situation. The objective measures are the same, but:

  • 30 minutes of watching the moon feels like an instant to me, but is an intolerable and insufferable bore to my children (subjective time differences).
  • That driver who cut me off the other day was totally unjustified, yet was speeding home to comfort their dying relative (different perspectives).
  • The car the retiree thinks is going fast, is slow by the teenager’s standards (subjective speed differences).
  • Librarians may like discovery services because of their perceived speed, but they can’t guarantee a comprehensive search for the professional researcher, such as an attorney (different contexts).

Reader Comments

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Written By In Garthwaite on January 30th, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

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