In physics, spacetime (or space-time, space time, space-time continuum) is any mathematical model that combines space and time into a single continuum. Spacetime is usually interpreted with space as being three-dimensional and time playing the role of a fourth dimension that is of a different sort from the spatial dimensions. From a Euclidean space perspective, the universe has three dimensions of space and one dimension of time. By combining space and time into a single manifold, physicists have significantly simplified a large number of physical theories, as well as described in a more uniform way the workings of the universe at both the supergalactic and subatomic levels.
In non-relativistic classical mechanics, the use of Euclidean space instead of spacetime is appropriate, as time is treated as universal and constant, being independent of the state of motion of an observer. In relativistic contexts, time cannot be separated from the three dimensions of space, because the observed rate at which time passes for an object depends on the object’s velocity relative to the observer and also on the strength of gravitational fields, which can slow the passage of time.
In cosmology, the concept of spacetime combines space and time to a single abstract universe. Mathematically it is a manifold consisting of “events” which are described by some type of coordinate system. Typically three spatial dimensions (length, width, height), and one temporal dimension (time) are required. Dimensions are independent components of a coordinate grid needed to locate a point in a certain defined “space”. For example, on the globe the latitude and longitude are two independent coordinates which together uniquely determine a location. In spacetime, a coordinate grid that spans the 3+1 dimensions locates events (rather than just points in space), i.e. time is added as another dimension to the coordinate grid. This way the coordinates specify where and when events occur. However, the unified nature of spacetime and the freedom of coordinate choice it allows imply that to express the temporal coordinate in one coordinate system requires both temporal and spatial coordinates in another coordinate system. Unlike in normal spatial coordinates, there are still restrictions for how measurements can be made spatially and temporally (see Spacetime intervals). These restrictions correspond roughly to a particular mathematical model which differs from Euclidean space in its manifest symmetry.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, time was believed to be independent of motion, progressing at a fixed rate in all reference frames; however, later experiments revealed that time slowed down at higher speeds of the reference frame relative to another reference frame (with such slowing called “time dilation” explained in the theory of “special relativity“). Many experiments have confirmed time dilation, such as atomic clocks onboard a Space Shuttle running slower than synchronized Earth-bound inertial clocks and the relativistic decay of muons from cosmic ray showers. The duration of time can therefore vary for various events and various reference frames.
When dimensions are understood as mere components of the grid system, rather than physical attributes of space, it is easier to understand the alternate dimensional views as being simply the result of coordinate transformations.
The term spacetime has taken on a generalized meaning beyond treating spacetime events with the normal 3+1 dimensions. It is really the combination of space and time. Other proposed spacetime theories include additional dimensions—normally spatial but there exist some speculative theories that include additional temporal dimensions and even some that include dimensions that are neither temporal nor spatial. How many dimensions are needed to describe the universe is still an open question. Speculative theories such as string theory predict 10 or 26 dimensions (with M-theory predicting 11 dimensions: 10 spatial and 1 temporal), but the existence of more than four dimensions would only appear to make a difference at the subatomic level.