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Concurrency, Time, and Relativity

It may seem that two operations should be called concurrent if they occur “at the same time”—but in fact, it is not important whether they literally overlap in time. Because of problems with clocks in distributed systems, it is actually quite difficult to tell whether two things happened at exactly the same time—an issue we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 8.

For defining concurrency, exact time doesn’t matter: we simply call two operations concurrent if they are both unaware of each other, regardless of the physical time at which they occurred. People sometimes make a connection between this principle and the special theory of relativity in physics [54], which introduced the idea that information cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Consequently, two events that occur some distance apart cannot possibly affect each other if the time between the events is shorter than the time it takes light to travel the distance between them.

In computer systems, two operations might be concurrent even though the speed of light would in principle have allowed one operation to affect the other. For example, if the network was slow or interrupted at the time, two operations can occur some time apart and still be concurrent, because the network problems prevented one operation from being able to know about the other.

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