General relativity (a note from Hacker News)

My barely-related response to a linkpost on Hacker News to Tim Hutton’s website.

I heard an interesting question at one point: “how come, when you throw a ball up on Earth, the parabola is so strongly curved? Spacetime is nearly flat, so how can a straight line become such a steep parabola?”

I’ll answer this question as I understand it, but I only took four lectures of General Relativity before I gave it up in favour of computability and logic, so if there is a more intuitive and/or less wrong answer out there, please correct me.

Intuitive answer: the curve is indeed very gentle, and (e.g.) light will be deflected only very slightly by the curvature; but the ball is moving for a couple of seconds, and that’s an eternity. On human scales, the time dimension is much “bigger” than the space dimensions (we’re quite big in the time dimension and quite small in the spatial dimensions); the ball moves only a small distance through space but a very large distance through time, amounting to a big distance in spacetime, and so the slight curvature has a bigger effect than you might expect.

Below, user vbezhenar asked:

Are we moving through time with constant speed? Or we’re constantly accelerating through time?

My response:

Under special relativity, everyone and everything moves at a constant speed c through spacetime. If you feel like you’re not moving, it’s because all your speed is being put towards travelling faster through time. Conversely, if you manage to move very fast through space, the world around you will appear to speed up, because you’ve had to trade off some of your forward travel through time so as to travel in space; the rest of the world is moving forward in time faster than you are. So you can change your acceleration through the time dimension of spacetime, by dint of changing your acceleration in the spatial ones.