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Reality Check: The relativistic age extension of Dark Horse’s ‘Lightstep’

The upper class might live longer in this science fiction story, but do they live better?

Dark Horse seems to have something special with their new science fiction comic series Lightstep, the second issue of which drops tomorrow. The art of Miloš Slavković is a hauntingly beautiful look at life among the stars, and he fills out the writing of that journey himself, along with Mirko Topalski.

The story of Lightstep is not unfamiliar. A ruling, affluent class is able to buy their way into better lives than those without as many resources. And as expected, that makes for longer lives, too. But we’re talking about seriously longer.

That’s because the people at the very top, the Pure Bloods, zip around the galaxy at velocities near that of light itself. If you remember what that crazy Einstein guy said, that means they’ll enjoy dramatically longer lifespans than the people creeping along at normal speeds.

Or does it?

Image credit: Dark Horse

Well, it depends. The bizarrely counterintuitive theory of special relativity states that some really weird things happen to an object when it’s accelerated to very high speeds — its mass increases (sort of), its length contracts (really) and yes, the object does indeed move more slowly through time. Hard as all that is for us to grasp, relativity is one of the most experimentally well-substantiated theories going. It’s proven every time you use your GPS.

Acceleration is the important word there, defined as a change in velocity. If something’s trucking along at a high rate of speed, but it’s constant and in the same direction, the “relative” part of relativity says you really can’t tell the two “reference frames” apart. But since velocity is a measure of both speed and direction, the fact that that the Pure Bloods are traveling “around the center of the galaxy” means they will in fact pass through time (and thus age) more slowly, compared to people not moving as fast.

But that doesn’t mean they feel like their lives are longer. Again, it’s all relative. In their own inertial reference frame, it’s another ordinary day/week/life, it’s just that everyone else around them seems to shrivel up and die super quick. So this scheme of moving really fast isn’t so great for feeling like you’ve lived a longer life, but pretty awesome if you want to stick around for a long time and see what the deep future of the universe will be like.

And the Pure Bloods of Lightstep are moving very fast. You can tell by the time comparison the writers give us. A normal guy is born as one of the Pure Bloods wakes up, and dies by the time they’re home for dinner. Plugging those elapsed time values into Einstein’s equation for time dilation, we find that the 1% are traveling at speeds well over 99% that of light. For reference, astronauts in Earth orbit travel at about 17,500 mph, which gives them a net gain of something like 0.0001 seconds per day.

Image credit: Dark Horse

The Pure Bloods, in contrast, are neck and neck with neutrinos, nearly massless particles that also tend to travel at velocities near that of light. The “massless” part is important, because as alluded to earlier, another weird consequence of relativity is that as something’s velocity increases, so does its mass (technically it’s the total mass AND energy, thanks to that whole E = mc2 thing).

Point being, if astronauts have to worry about space debris at the speeds and sizes of ships they use NOW, imagine something bolting at near the speed of light, with nearly infinite mass. Okay, in the future I guess you can imagine an engineering fix for anything, but the infinite mass part is a little harder to get around. So to speak.

But that’s why science fiction is not beholden to science, necessarily. Sure can be a good place to start talking about it, though!

[P.S. It’s worth noting that you and I, even now, are never at rest. The Earth rotates at about 1,000 mph (at the equator), revolves around the Sun at 67,000 mph, and the whole system flies through our galaxy at almost half a million mph. Here we’re considering velocities “relative” to us. 😊 ]

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