A time-lapse photo like this composition reminds us that photographs are normally snapshots of locations at particular moments, with each moment distinct and unique from the last. In the context of relativity, time is not just a coordinate, but a dimension all unto itself. (FLICKR USER ANTHONY PUCCI)

This Is Why Time Has To Be A Dimension

You might think that we live in a three dimensional Universe based on space alone. But you cannot leave time out of it.

Ethan Siegel
Sep 3 · 8 min read

If you were asked to describe how you can move through the Universe, you’d probably think of all the different directions you were free to move in. You could go left or right, forwards or backwards, and upwards or downwards; that’s it. Those three independent directions, described by something as simple as a grid, describe all the possible ways once can move through space.

But those three dimensions are far from all there are. There’s a fourth dimension that’s just as important, even though it’s very different: time. We’re always moving forward through time, sure, but it’s just as much a dimension as any of the spatial ones. Whether you say we live in a four-dimensional Universe described by the fabric of spacetime, or a 3+1 dimensional Universe, where we have three spatial plus one time dimension, you cannot separate these entities from one another while still being physically correct. Let’s try and understand why.

This detailed, photo-like view of Earth is based largely on observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite. On the surface of a world like the Earth, only two coordinates (e.g., latitude and longitude) are needed to define a location. If subterranean locations or locations above the surface are allowed, a third spatial dimension is required as well. (NASA)

Human beings, for the most part, live only on the surface of the Earth. When we want to describe where we’re located, we typically only have to give two coordinates: a latitude and longitude. We only need these two values, which describe where we’re located along the north-south and east-west axes of our planet, because the third dimension is a given: we’re on the Earth’s surface.

But if you’re willing to go either underground or into the air above Earth’s surface, you’d need a third coordinate to accurately describe your location: altitude/depth, or where you are on the up-down axis. After all, someone located at the exact same latitude and longitude as you ⁠ — the same two-dimensional coordinates ⁠ — could easily be in a subterranean tunnel or an overhead helicopter. They aren’t necessarily at the same exact location; you need three independent pieces of information to pinpoint your location in space.

Your location in this Universe isn’t just described by spatial coordinates (where), but also by a time coordinate (when). It is impossible to move from one spatial location to another without also moving through time. (PIXABAY USER RMATHEWS100)

But even two different objects with the same exact three-dimensional spatial coordinates might not overlap. The reason is easy to understand if you start thinking about the chair you’re sitting in right now. It can definitely have its location accurately described by those three spatial coordinates familiar to us: x, y, and z. This chair, however, is occupied by you right now, at this exact moment in time, as opposed to yesterday, an hour ago, next week, or ten years from now.

In order to completely describe an event in spacetime, you need to know more than just where it occurs, but also when it occurs. In addition to x, y, and z, you also need a time coordinate: t. Although this might seem obvious, it didn’t play a large role in physics until the development of Einstein’s relativity, when physicists started thinking about the issue of simultaneity. Imagine, if you will, two separate locations ⁠ — a point “A” and a point “B” ⁠ — connected by a path.

You can pick any two points and draw a 1-dimensional (linear) path connecting them. If you require someone to walk from point A to point B at the same time that someone walks from point B to point A, there will always be an event in spacetime where both of those travelers occupy the same point in all four dimensions: they will occupy the same spatial location at the exact same time. (SIMEON87 / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS; E. SIEGEL)

Imagine that you have one person who starts at A while the other starts at B, and they each travel towards the other point. You can visualize where each one is by placing a finger from each hand at A and B, and then “walking” them towards their respective destinations. There’s no way for the person starting at A to get to B without passing by the other person, and there’s no way the person starting at B can get to A without passing the first person.

In other words, in order for each person to arrive at their destination, there will need to be a moment where each of your two fingers occupy the same spot at the same time. In relativity, this is known as a simultaneous event: where all the space and time coordinates of two different physical objects overlap. This is not only non-controversial, it’s mathematically provable.

If you allow a tennis ball to fall onto a hard surface like a table, you can be certain that it will bounce back. In order to describe the position of a particle like this tennis ball, you have to properly account for its motion through the Universe, which requires not just information about its spatial position but also how that position evolves with time. Only by including a time coordinate along with the three spatial ones can we accurately speak about the motion of objects through our Universe. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USERS MICHAELMAGGS AND (EDITED BY) RICHARD BARTZ)

This thought experiment explains why time needs to be considered as a dimension that we move through, just as surely as our spatial dimensions are dimensions that we move through. It wasn’t Einstein, however, who put space and time together into a singular formulation that left them inextricable. Instead, it was Einstein’s former professor ⁠ — Hermann Minkowski ⁠ — who figured out how inseparable these two entities were.

Less than three years after Einstein first introduced his Special theory of Relativity, Minkowski demonstrated their unity with a brilliant line of reasoning. If you wish to move through space, you cannot do it instantaneously; you have to move from where you are right now to another spatial location, where you’ll only arrive at some point in the future. If you’re here now, you cannot be elsewhere at this same moment, you can only get there later. Moving through space requires you to move through time, too.

An animated look at how spacetime responds as a mass moves through it helps showcase exactly how, qualitatively, it isn’t merely a sheet of fabric but all of space itself gets curved by the presence and properties of the matter and energy within the Universe. Note that spacetime can only be described if we include not only the position of the massive object, but where that mass is located throughout time. Both instantaneous location and the past history of where that object was located determine the forces experienced by objects moving through the Universe. (LUCASVB)

What Einstein’s 1905 publication of special relativity laid out was the quantitative relationship between one’s motion through space and one’s motion through time. It taught us that the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal speed limit, and that when you approach it, you experience the bizarre phenomena of length contraction and time dilation.

But Minkowski took a giant leap forward when he realized, mathematically, that moving through time behaves exactly as moving through space does, except with two additional multiplicative factors: c, the speed of light in a vacuum, and i, the imaginary number √(-1). After completing his derivation of spacetime for the first time, Minkowski lectured:

Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.

An example of a light cone, the three-dimensional surface of all possible light rays arriving at and departing from a point in spacetime. The more you move through space, the less you move through time, and vice versa. Only things contained within your past light-cone can affect you today; only things contained within your future light-cone can be perceived by you in the future. (WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER MISSMJ)

When you put these revelations together, it leads to a vastly different picture of the Universe than the one you’d intuit based on the old Newtonian notions of absolute space and absolute time. As you move through the Universe in particular, you’ll experience changes in how space and time pass for you.

  • If you’re stationary and unmoving, remaining in the same spatial position, you will move forward through time at the maximum rate possible.
  • As you move through space more quickly, you’ll move through time more slowly (time dilates), and the shorter spatial distances along your direction-of-motion (length contraction) will appear to be.
  • And if you were massless, you would have no option but to move at the speed of light. Distances along your direction-of-motion will contract down to zero; you’d traverse them instantaneously. Similarly, time will dilate to infinity; your journey will take zero time from your perspective.
A light-clock, formed by a photon bouncing between two mirrors, will define time for any observer. Although the two observers may not agree with one another on how much time is passing, they will agree on the laws of physics and on the constants of the Universe, such as the speed of light. A stationary observer will see time pass normally, but an observer moving rapidly through space will have their clock run slower relative to the stationary observer. (JOHN D. NORTON)

When you examine what the physical implications of these considerations are, they’re nothing short of astonishing. You can learn that all massless particles are intrinsically stable; as no time passes for them in their frame of reference, they can never decay. Unstable particles that are created, even with extremely short lifetimes, can travel much greater distances than you’d assume by naively multiplying their speed by the time that they live.

For example, a muon, created in the upper atmosphere some 60–100 km up, will reach the Earth’s surface, even though its lifetime (2.2 µs) means that it shouldn’t even travel 1 kilometer at near-light speeds before decaying away. It also means that things that start off identical won’t necessarily remain so: a pair of identical twins where one remains on Earth and the other takes a journey into space will age at different rates, with the journeying twin finding themselves younger (experiencing less passage of time) than their remaining twin upon their return.

Mark and Scott Kelly are shown here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, before one of them spent the year in space (aboard the ISS) while the other remained on the ground. Although the experiment was designed to measure the effects of being in the environment of space on the human body, with the remaining brother serving as a control, the act of traveling in space, even in low-Earth orbit, renders the moving twin slightly younger upon his return. (ROBERT MARKOWITZ/AFP/Getty Images)

You cannot treat space and time separately, as they are inextricably linked; moving through one affects your motion through the other, regardless of any other properties inherent to your spacetime. Today, special relativity has been superseded by general relativity, which also encompasses the curvature inherent to space itself. Regardless of the properties of the Universe you inhabit, your motion through space and time cannot be treated separately from one another; you need them both, together, to describe your reality.

Time is just as good a dimension as space is, as no matter how you boost yourself through space, you must always move forward through time. It’s sometimes written that our Universe is 3+1 dimensional instead of 4-dimensional because time is on a slightly separate footing: increasing your motion through space decreases your motion through time, and vice versa.

If you know all the rules governing how an object will move through spacetime as well as the initial conditions and the exertion of forces between the object and the remainder of your system, you should be able to predict how this object will move through both space and time. You cannot describe the position of an object accurately without including a time coordinate in addition to the spatial ones. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most remarkable fact of Einstein’s relativity is that anyone, regardless of how they move through space relative to anyone else, will see the same rules governing their motion through space and time. Changing your motion through space will result in predictable effects and consequences for your motion through time, and whenever you encounter another observer at those same space and time coordinates, you can both agree on what simultaneous is for you at that exact moment.

If time weren’t a dimension with the exact properties it possesses, special relativity would be invalid, and we could not construct spacetime to describe our Universe. We need time to be a dimension inextricable from space for physics to work the way it does. When someone asks you whether we live in a 3-dimensional Universe, be proud to add a “+1” and pay your respects to time.


Starts With A Bang is now on Forbes, and republished on Medium thanks to our Patreon supporters. Ethan has authored two books, Beyond The Galaxy, and Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive.

Starts With A Bang!

The Universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.

Ethan Siegel

Written by

The Universe is: Expanding, cooling, and dark. It starts with a bang! #Cosmology Science writer, astrophysicist, science communicator & NASA columnist.

Starts With A Bang!

The Universe is out there, waiting for you to discover it.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade