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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

The Case of the Missing Time

By Gaetan Damberg-Ott

When she burst into my office, I knew she meant business. Killer on the loose, killer body: this dame had a case that was right up my alley. Between her sobbing I got some bare details of the case. Husband dead, high speed trains, this case didn’t sound like a cakewalk. Then again, you don’t come to Bull Tracer with the easy ones. I’m a Private Eye; says so on the door.

I told the dame to take a seat, and give me the facts. Seems her husband was some big honcho, import-export if you catch my drift, and had been sent to sleep with the fishes so to speak. His most recent trip had taken a turn for the worse, and now he had turned up dead. At noon yesterday he had boarded his train. High speed train. The dame said this train was faster than a speeding bullet, I didn’t take it literally ‘till she told me that the thing traveled at three-fifths the speed of light. I’m no Einstein but that’s fast. At 1:15 p.m. she was supposed to meet him at the station. Instead, as she stood there waiting for him the train roared past the station, and at that instant she saw a gun flash. At the next station the train stopped, and she found the guy dead. Gun shot. And she’d seen it happen.

Guns don’t make me nervous but numbers do. I took a sip of whiskey and asked the dame if we had any other clues. Turns out the kingpin is a paranoid guy, guess you gotta be in that business, and required every person who entered his cabin to sign in to the registry outside his door. Case closed, I told the dame: match the guy who was signed in at the moment she saw him killed. This femme was all worked up for nothing, as long as we had the registry we got the guy.

Not so easy, she told me. Turns out the dame wasn’t just a pretty package, she’d already tried that.  The train left at 12 p.m., and at 1:15 p.m. she saw him killed. Hour and fifteen by my watch. When she got in the train, she looked at the registry, but no one was signed in at 1:15. Looks like our killer is no wiseguy, and my one lead had turned sour. 
All these times and numbers were making my head hurt. I needed a drink and I knew where to find one. I hustled her out the door and told her we were going for a walk. The dame worried it wouldn’t be safe out. I told her my sidekick was coming with. I keep him at my side, and he sure kicks. We headed down to The Quantum Shift, a little watering hole I like to call home.

The place is always crawling with physicists. Not my crowd, but my bookie’s never heard of the place so I put up with ‘em.  She grabbed a table in the back; I grabbed a drink. I needed to get the juices flowing. I decided to go back over the case with the dame. 12 p.m. train leaves, 1:15 he’s shot. Yet no one was signed into the registry at the time of the shot. She assured me that everyone had to sign it before they could enter. This dame was more persuasive than a loaded .38, so I believed her. It was like fifteen minutes was missing. Where did that time go?

I decided to find Marie. We had a history, but I needed answers. She studies falling bodies; I study dead ones. She tried to dodge me when she caught sight of me but I cornered her. “I ain’t here to rehash the past, hon; I’m here for something else. Namely time. It’s missing. I need some answers and I need them now,” I muttered. “You missing some time Bull?” she asked. “Yeah. Fifteen minutes,” I told her, “Any idea how you can get rid of time?” “Well you can’t get rid of time, but you can have differences in time.”

I didn’t follow. Time was time.  How can it change without being lost? Marie could always tell when I was lost. In no time she was explaining that in different reference frames, time can move at different speeds. I thought she might be on to something. I didn’t follow the whole reference frame-thing, but I was cold out on leads. “So this could account for the fifteen minutes?” I asked. She went on to list more Greek letters than a frat boy, something about gamma and time dilation. I told her my eyes were going to dilate if she didn’t slow down.

“Time moves more slowly if you are moving faster,” she said. “How slowly time moves depends on how fast you are going relative to the speed of light. The speed of light is the benchmark for most of my line of work.” The speed of a bullet was the benchmark in my line of work, but suddenly it was making more sense in my head. It seemed the registry didn’t match up ‘cause the time on the train was different than the time of the dame watching. What for her was an hour and fifteen elapsed, was less for them on the train. Could this be where my time had gone?

“How much time would I lose going at three-fifths the speed of light for an hour and fifteen?” I demanded. “You don’t lose time, it just moves at a different speed” she mumbled again. I wasn’t in any mood for the details, I needed this case solved, and fast. “What would a clock on the train read at the time of the shot?” “Well…”  and she proceeded to scribble numbers on a napkin…

physics equation  is the equation,

now the train moved at .6c so:
 physics equation which will.....

I couldn’t tell what made me more uncomfortable: all these numbers or being around Marie again. I wasn’t in the mood to find out. “Time’s up Marie. I need answers, not numbers.” “1.25!” she yelled. “That’s gamma!” I didn’t know what the hell gamma was or meant, but she seemed to think it was important. “What time did he get shot at then?” I demanded. “Well, 75/1.25=60, so at 1 p.m. he was shot, according to the time frame of the train,” announced Marie proudly.

You had to give it to the gal, she performed well under pressure. We’d cracked the case. The dame seemed thrilled. While she had seen him shot at 1:15 p.m., on the train the event occurred at 1 p.m. according to their frame of reference. The guy who was signed in at 1 p.m. knocked off our guy.  Numbers ain’t my game, but then again I don’t pick my cases. Plus, the dame paid me handsomely for my troubles, and the sight of greenbacks snapping into my hand made my worries slip out the door. “Bout time for me to slip out the door,” I thought to myself, glancing at my watch. It was 4 a.m. Now that’s time dilation I’m more familiar with. Who knew who’d walk into my office tomorrow, but for now I needed some sleep. Another case closed for Bull Tracer.

Gaetan Damberg-Ott is a graduating international relations major at Carleton College..

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Editor: Alan Chodos
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