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Anchor 6

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There are so many atoms. I had no idea. Richard Feynman said that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement, it would be, ‘All things are made of atoms.’ That includes air. When I read that last night, I was not all that excited. Democritus had said that in 300 BC, I remembered, and it had not seemed very exciting to me when I learned it from him, either. It seemed obvious.


But last night I read about how many atoms there are and how tiny they are and how nearly indestructible. And that they make up everything. Just try to absorb this: there are 45 billion billion molecules of air, at the freezing point, in a sugar-cube-sized amount of air. (Don’t ask me what freezing has to do with it.)


Also, molecules are more than just one atom. I don’t know how many atoms make up a piece of air. But it must take more than 45 billion billion because that is the number of molecules, each of which is lots of atoms. So let’s say it's at least twice as many: at least 90 billion billion. And that is only a sugar cube of air.


So just think how many sugar cubes it would take to fill the view of our garden, of Preston Crowmarsh, of England, of the North Atlantic, of the universe.


Also, they last practically forever. Here is another point various sciencey people make: all of the atoms in our bodies have probably travelled through stars and multiple life forms and even other humans on their random way to configuring us. For example, up to a billion of our atoms might well have lived inside Michelangelo or Jesus or Ivan the Terrible or Socrates. Or other impressive people. Or not so impressive ones..


An atom, according to Martin Rees, lasts probably about 10^35 years. That is a long time. I wish I could really really understand just how long. It is nearly forever. So when the atom ‘dies’, what exactly happens to it?


Then there is their size. Atoms are so utterly itty bitty we don’t have a tiny enough word to describe the smallness. Only analogies: ‘Half a million atoms lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.’ I just can’t pound on my mind hard enough to get that to go in.


‘A millimetre (-) would have to be divided into 1,000 equal widths (which is a micron) and then each micron divided into 10,000 finer widths. That would be the size of an atom. ‘One atom is to a millimetre line as the thickness of one sheet of paper is to the height of the Empire State Building.’ Mad.


But a very sweet thing I learned is that these things about atoms (that they are tiny, many, and durable, and make up everything) were realised first (as far as we know) by a quiet Quaker man, John Dalton, in the English Lake District in 1766. Those quiet Quakers were nearly always ahead of everyone else. Quiet advances you.


One more thing about our own atoms’ coming from other people like Socrates. Apparently, the atoms at our death fall apart and meander off to be of use on other noble projects. So they can become dew drops or leaves as well as new eyelashes. I wonder how the atoms that clustered to become skin and organs and fingernails and things then de-clustered and went on their way to become rose petals and ants, and then one day re-clustered to become human irises. Where were they in the meantime? And how do they find the other atoms that could then link with them to become a new knee cap? What is the means by which they determine which other atoms to hook up with in order to make which new thing?


And what happens to those human atoms when the dead body is cremated?


Also, the atom is as a kind of solar system. It has a nucleus in the centre which contains the bulk of its ‘material.’ Around the nucleus zoom electrons in an orbit (electrons are 1800 times lighter than the contents of the nucleus which are protons and neutrons, so they zoom of their own accord). In an element, such as a diamond (crystal), there are many atoms (carbon); and the distance between one nucleus and another is vast. Let a football be a nucleus, and the next nucleus is 12 miles away!


The 12 miles between footballs (nuclei) would contain the electrons in orbit, but they would be much smaller than a gnat. And they would be several miles away from the football.


See what I mean?


Then there are quarks. They are even tinier. They are inside electrons, protons and neutrons.


Then there is superstring. It is tinier than quarks. And, thankfully, we stop there. Scientists think that superstring is the truly final infinitesimal thing in the universe. But then again Democritus thought he had found the final element of matter, too. And it was only a (huge!) atom with multiple pieces inside. And anyway, I have just heard that string theory is not even a proper theory yet because there are no experiments that can prove it. So it may be out. Darn.


One more thing: the neutrino. It is a shocker. It is so deeply, deeply tiny that it is really a ghost. It hardly ever touches matter. It can pass through, get this, many trillions of miles of lead and none of its motion is disturbed or changed.


In fact, billions of neutrinos are passing through your body at the moment.


They were sent from the sun.





It is upsetting to think that I was dating a man at Caltech when Feynman was there being his unfathomably brilliant and very nice self, and I was just down the road at Scripps blissfuly absorbed in philosophy. Physics, if you asked me, was entirely beside the point. But Scripps knew better than I did. It also taught me rigour. And 45 years later I could turn that light towards science. It was perfect really.


And anyway, because it took those 45 years for me to leap like a fanatic into a love of science and onto the edges of the Feynman world, up popped YouTube where I can ‘attend’ those Feynman lectures, learn from him and be gaga in private.

Anchor 5


I have been meaning to set aside an afternoon to take in how big the universe is. But I can’t seem to do it. Instead I read some figures to get started, and then keel over. I am sure there are people who have taken these facts in, processed them with a flourish, and gone on with the rest of their lives. Not me. I fall right at the feet of these figures, looking (because feeling) worshipful. How can these figures be what they are? And is there anything wrong with my brain that strips the gears at the sight of them? I am assured not. But some afternoons I wonder.

So maybe by telling you about them, I can oil the whole works, ’get’ the figures finally, and move on with my ordinary and very small life.


I warn you, though, these are gaspingly, torturously, unforgivingly long distances here. Not even Bill Bryson would have the right adverb for how long these distances are.

So, given that is it usually safe to start at home, let’s take just the Milky Way:


There are between 300,000,000,000 (300 hundred billion!) and 1,000,000,000,000 (a trillion!) stars in our galaxy.


(I know that is a large discrepancy in calculation, but that is just the way it is in science - more unknowns than knowns, and more than one ‘it depends’. Science, unlike some other systems of thought, is humble in that way.)


And that’s just the stars in our galaxy. There are at least 100 billion more galaxies in the universe. Again, some scientists calculate differently and would say there are way more than that. But with the modest figure of ‘only’ 100 billion galaxies we would have to multiply 300,000,000,000 Milky Way stars x 100,000,000,000 galaxies and get 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars! That’s thirty sextillion stars in the universe, as a low estimate.


Now I can do 1,000 stars. Maybe even 10,000, but only with a big smear at the edges. And from that point I’m gone.

And that is still not the size of the universe because you have to factor in, obviously, the size of each star. It is not just 30 sextillion cute little pricks in the sky. Each one of those points of light is itself colossal. Our sun, for example, is 1 million miles across. 1 million miles. And our sun is a dismissible dot compared to the biggest star discovered so far. It is 1 billion times bigger than that, making it 1,000,000,000,000,000 miles across. (1 quadrillion miles!)


How are you doing?


So if there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy that range in size from 1 million miles across to 1 quadrillion miles across, you then have to factor in that each one of these stars is, breathe, 3 million years away from the next one. And those 3 million years are ‘light years’. So this is not any old annual travel. It is not like the distance you would cover if you were at your usual cruising altitude of 500 miles an hour for a year. We are talking about the distance you would go in a year if you could travel at 670,616,629 miles an hour. (Which you can’t, sorry. Nothing can travel at the speed of light except light. Everything else loses its body at that speed and just becomes vapour, sadly.) But imagine the distance you could cover going that fast, nearly seven hundred thousand miles an hour, in a year. Then imagine how much further away you would be if you kept going at that speed for 3 million years. It is a bit more than 17,635,876,119,550,823,192, or 17+ quintillion miles. That is the distance between these already desperately big stars.


So the universe is at least as big as 1 sextillion stars x 1 to 1 quadrillion miles across each x 17, + quintillion miles between them. Don’t add it up. You’ll regret it.


Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you don’t stop breathing in the face of this hugeness. Contact me if so. I want to marry you.


Oh, and just to stay sober about these billions and billions we’re pretending to process: if you sat down to count from 1 to only 1 billion, you would be counting for 95 years.

Anchor 1

Photo by NASA


Earth is moving.

It is spinning at 1000 mi per hour.

It is whizzing around the sun at 67,000 mi per hour.

As part of our solar system it is streaking through the Milky Way at 500,000 mi per hour.


Also, it is charging, along with all of our neighbouring galaxies, towards a region of space called the ‘Great Attractor’ at 22,110,000 mi per hour.


And we don’t feel a thing. We are strolling through our lives, feeling the earth as still as Georgia summer air, and all the time we are moving like maniacs through space and covering distances that make the moon journey, even the Pluto flyby, seem like boules. Very wow. Very upsetting.


I’m going to bed.



The reason we don’t feel this can’t-possibly-be-true moving of the earth is that we are on it. To feel the earth moving, we would have to step off it. (It’s called ‘special ‘relativity: what is real depends on where you are.) But then we would become a sack of bubbles, so we still wouldn’t feel a thing.


Good night.

Anchor 2



After huge and tiny and fast, imagine short. Squintingly short. Fugacious. Squeezedly itsy short amounts of time.


My favourite is the femtosecond. Already a quadrillion of them have gone by in my saying that. They make a whole second seem torpid. And just to picture the quadrillion femtoseconds that have whizzed by right then produces the same kind of ‘what?’ as the stars’ girth and the ridiculous distances between them. It hurts to try.


But here is some help:

A femtosecond is to a second what a second is to 32,000,000 years.

Or, a femtosecond is to a second what the width of a human hair is to the distance between the earth and the moon.


It doesn’t help, does it? I know. Eye-poppingly cool as it is.


Maybe it will help to think about what things last for a femtosecond. Like light. I realise that light, even though it is lots of things, i.e., photons, and once in a while it becomes, oops, gravity, is not the most thingy thing in the world, but maybe it’s better than empty space for imagining the femtosecond. So, for example, in one femtosecond light photons travel only 300 nanometers, only 3/1000 of the thickness of a sheet of paper.



Truce. Maybe actually conceiving of this ludicrous shortness is hopeless. But accepting it turns out to be good for the world, not just a cerebral indulgence – exactly because it is soooooooo short.


For example, Erich Ippen and Chuck Shank made femtosecond pulses, and according to Franz Kaertner ‘these extremely short pulses made it possible to deposit high energy (light) to destroy material such as tissue on a tiny spatial scale (eyes), without enough time for the energy to diffuse and damage surrounding tissue.’ That meant that Gordon Gould, hanging out near a candy store in the Bronx in 1957, could think up the laser. And eye surgery could become no big deal, if admittedly wondrous.


Obviously, the femtosecond did not cause that development; the femtosecond just was, and humans, allowing themselves to conceive of it and not settle for gross time scales like the second or microsecond or nanosecond or even the picosecond, gave people back their sight.




So maybe people like us just have to sit it out. Let it rain. Let the amazing shortness wash over us, tilt our heads back, and smile.


Maybe that’s enough.

Anchor 3


Another thing in all of this is having to give up the idea that things consisting of all those lonely ‘footballs’ are solid. When we sit on a chair or run into a wall, we are not contacting anything. Nothing solid. And not air either. Given the space between nucleus and electrons, we have to face it: hard matter is not hard. That is, its constituents parts, atoms, are not what make it hard. Even a diamond, queen of hard, is mostly empty space.


What makes it hard are the forces and fields and bonds inside the atoms that keep the parts apart. Hard matter (the things we can’t walk through) are hard because of the mysterious forces (like the strong force and weak force and two others) that keep the bits from collapsing into each other.


Democritus would have loved that. Hard stuff is force, not matter.


Even the chair I just bumped into. Slipcovered force.


Pretty, though.

Anchor 4


There is nothing soft, either. Space, that star of soft, turns out to be stuff. In fact, that fact is one of the most science/re-directing things that ever happened to it. When you grab a fistful of space, you have actually grabbed a thing.


I learned this from the sublime writing of Carlos Rovelli (Seven Lessons on Physics). You’d love it. You probably already do. Here’s my favourite bit:


Space is no longer something distinct from matter; it is one of the ‘material’ components of the world. An entity that undulates, flexes, curves, twists.


Of course it took Einstein to figure this out. No rush-around, everyday person was going to be looking at the oh-so-soft nothing of space and think ‘thing.’ But he did. And he took it even further, noticing that in the way that obvious stuff moves when other stuff hits it, so space must move when things fly into it, like planets.


And when the planet hits the space/stuff, the planet is moved, too, because the space it hits collapses a bit and pulls the planet down or over or wherever with it. So at last I get it: that is what gravity is. It is not a force coming in from the outside in some inexplicable way as Newton thought. It is the result of space flinching when a thing touches it. Just the way we do when someone runs into us. We collapse a little and the person’s body moves into ours a bit. And so we move, too. An apple falls to the ground because the space stuff collapses as the apple hits it; it then collapses, and the apple travels along the collapse.


And because space is collapsing with each thing that hits it, even things like hearts and livers and eyeballs stay in place because they are hitting the space that is collapsing in just those shapes. If the space were instead to push outward or disappear, we would fly apart in a flash, every bit of us in pieces, flung.


Isn’t that wonderful? Here we are surrounded by this thing that we would swear is nothing, and it determines everything.

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