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Quasar ‘Clocks’ Unveil Time Moving 5 Times Slower in the First Billion Years Following the Big Bang

Time dilation, brought about by the relativistic expansion of space, has resulted in the observed slowing of ‘clocks’ in the early universe.

Confirmation of Time Dilation in Early Universe Quasars Validates Einstein’s Theory

The phenomenon of time passing more slowly in quasars located in the early universe has been observed, providing further evidence for Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the expanding nature of space. Geraint Lewis, a cosmologist at the University of Sydney, stated that this discovery reinforces Einstein’s principles.

In a recently published paper, Lewis and Brendon Brewer from the University of Auckland detail their long-awaited confirmation of time dilation effects in the variability of quasars. Quasars are highly active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes that undergo accretion. These black holes have relatively small accretion disks, allowing for fluctuations in quasar emissions to occur within a few days, making them easier to study.

However, due to the significant expansion of the universe since the light and its fluctuations were emitted from the 12 billion-year-old quasars, we now observe them as they appeared over 12 billion years ago. While researchers anticipated that quasars would exhibit this behavior, previous attempts to detect it had been unsuccessful, as Lewis explained.

After 20 years of observing a new collection of 190 high-redshift quasars using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), Pan-STARRS, and the Dark Energy Survey, Lewis and Brewer have finally managed to detect time dilation in the variability of quasar light. The extensive duration of the observations, combined with the telescopic sensitivity to quasar fluctuations, has unveiled the time dilation effect. The observed sluggishness of these fluctuations suggests that time in these quasars runs approximately five times slower than it does in our Earth-bound frame of reference.

Lewis expressed, “We can precisely determine the characteristics of their variability and demonstrate that quasars conform to the behavior dictated by the cosmos.”

To clarify, the perceived slowness of time in these quasars is not due to a relative decrease in their surroundings—it is simply a consequence of their own frame of reference, where time elapses normally. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which describes the passage of time, is built upon the concept of different frames of reference that can be distinguished by their relative velocities.

Lewis explained, “The movement of distant galaxies is a result of the expansion of space.” Consider the Hubble constant, which quantifies the rate at which a volume of space spanning 3.26 million light-years expands every second. This incremental effect accumulates as space continues to expand. The farther a galaxy is from us, the greater the expansion between that galaxy and us, causing the galaxy to appear to recede from us at an accelerated pace.

“Some of these quasars were moving away from us at speeds exceeding that of light, relative to us, at the time the photons were emitted,” Lewis added.

As Einstein demonstrated, peculiar phenomena arise as an object approaches the speed of light. One of these phenomena is time dilation. From the perspective of a stationary observer on Earth, a clock traveling at a higher velocity, be it on a spacecraft or within a quasar, appears to slow down. The effect intensifies with greater velocities, reaching significant proportions when approaching the speed of light, leading to curious outcomes such as the twin paradox.

Time dilation is not solely a theoretical concept—it has been observed, albeit in minute measures, in satellites orbiting the Earth, which necessitates corrections in systems like the Global Positioning System (GPS). Cosmologically, time dilation has been detected in supernovae that exploded 6 to 7 billion years ago, but until now, it had never been observed in objects beyond that distance.

In addition to serving as another compelling validation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, the observed time dilation in quasars provides additional support for the notion that our universe is expanding due to the Big Bang. If the universe were not undergoing expansion, the quasars would not exhibit apparent relativistic motion relative to us. Lewis characterized these findings as “putting an end to some of the more radical hypotheses that had been put forward, including doubts about the accuracy of cosmological theories, which arose from the previous lack of observation of quasar time dilation.”

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