Einstein’s Effect on the Mississippi


“Dad, how long is a Mississippi?”

Daniel and I were at McDonald’s one evening, having ice cream because we both ate our dinner and it was slightly above freezing outside (taking into account the skewed view of weather in Belvidere at the end of November, this should be considered “warm”).  I knew the river was something like 2,000 miles long, but that wasn’t what Daniel was interested in.  He wanted to know if one Mississippi was really one second long.

“Let’s figure it out,” I said, setting my digital watch.  I waited until the minute reset back to zero and cued Daniel to begin.  He started counting.  One Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi…  Daniel said forty-four Mississippi’s in one minute, sixty Mississippi’s in slightly under a minute and a half.  Doing a quick calculation on the back of a napkin, I figured the average Mississippi was about one and one-third seconds long.

Daniel scowled, “It’s supposed to be one second!”

“Well, let me give it a try,” I said.  We waited for my watch to circle around to the zero point again.  I started counting.  It was harder than I thought it would be.  Saying “Mississippi” over and over again is difficult.  Daniel laughed nervously as he watched my watch count the time.  At first I was several seconds ahead, but the watch started to catch up as I had to say “Thirty-seven Mississippi” in one second.  I admit I stumbled over a few, but didn’t take the time to go back and re-say them.  In the end, I figured the data would still be within an acceptable margin of error.  I finished saying “Sixty Mississippi” as the watch showed one minute exactly. 

Daniel was a bit confused.  “Why is your Mississippi different than mine?”  I mentioned Albert Einstein.  Daniel had heard of him, courtesy of Jimmy Neutron.

“Einstein said when you move around faster, time slows down for you,” I explained.  “I just sat here and ate my ice cream while you ran around like a maniac.  Therefore I could count sixty Mississippi’s.  In your slower time, you could only count forty-four.”  I am sticking to my explanation of Einstein, though I must admit the discrepancy between my Mississippi and Daniel’s may have less to do with the Theory of Relativity and more with the fact Daniel giggled while counting.

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