When high school student Ryan Chester heard that Silicon Valley’s prestigious Breakthrough Prize would include a new category for an outstanding science video, he decided to go big and tackle a question that baffles most adults: why do space travelers experience time more slowly than people on Planet Earth?
“Time dilation has been in science TV shows and movies like Interstellar so often that I’ve just accepted it without understanding why it was true. So when this challenge came around I thought this area was a great one to dig into,” the 18-year-old Ohio native explains in an introduction to his video, available on YouTube under the title “Some Cool Ways of Looking at the Special Theory of Relativity.”
Chester’s digging has resulted in a humorous, imaginative romp through Einstein’s theory of Special Relatively, the umbrella theory for time dilation. And his video was more than just a fun concept: out of over 2,000 entries and 15 finalists, it won tonight’s Breakthrough Junior Challenge worth $400,000, funded by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Khan Academy.
Chester will himself receive $250,000 in educational prizes and his teacher Richard Nestoff will receive an award of $50,000. Furthermore, Chester’s school, North Royalton High School, will receive a custom built $100,000 science lab designed in partnership with the non-profit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State.
“Special Relativity has got to rank up there with one of the most revolutionary theories in physics. I’ve seen it referenced in science books and magazines for years,” says Chester “It was always mentioned in relationship to the idea that you can travel forward in time if you just move fast enough.”
Along with penning a compelling tale that guides you between the first postulate of Special Relativity to the second postulate, Chester deployed a Renaissance worthy array of skills in the video including on-camera narration along with filming and editing. He also spiced up the narrative with a beautifully selected and edited musical score, and a generous helping of motion graphics and special effects of his own creation including an “actual” takeoff and landing of a spaceship from what appears to be the front yard of his house.
Most of the action takes place in and around a typical suburban backyard, where Chester makes his first appearance from behind a child’s play set to give a gentle push to a tire swing. That simple action provides the backdrop for Chester’s main point, which is that groundbreaking ideas don’t have to be complicated or hard to understand.
As he explains in another introduction, “even the simplest understanding of quantum mechanics can be used to wrap your mind around why time must slow down the faster an object moves.”
It’s difficult to pick out a favorite sequence from among the “easy-to-understand real-world experiments” Chester presents in his hometown setting. Our favorite has to be the bowl of popcorn he deploys to demonstrate that “popcorn will behave the same within any reference frame” (hint: do not attempt the second part of this experiment at home).
In the video, Chester notes that while the relativity of time is theoretically a natural conclusion, “it just isn’t a natural conclusion from our experience here on earth, where currently there aren’t a whole lot of near light-speed travel options available.”
Undaunted, Chester looks forward to the day when super fast space travel is a thing. In the meantime as this year’s Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner, he can figure out where he wants to put his prize, a $250,000 educational scholarship.