There's just time for a tad of science

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The Independent Online
I keep hearing things described as nano-this and nano-that. What exactly does this betoken?

A nanosecond is a very short period of time. A nanometre is a very short distance.

As short as the distance between a supermodel's ears?

Much shorter than that. A nanometre is a thousand-millionth of a metre.

My goodness. That's very short.

Yes, it is, isn't it ? Nano comes from the Latin word for a dwarf. Which in turn comes from the Greek word for dwarf.

So the Romans and Greeks had the same word for dwarf?

Yes, more or less.

So a Roman and a Greek, even if they could talk about nothing else, could talk about dwarves?

Well, they couldn't talk about them. But they could point at one and go "Nano ... " and laugh.

No political correctness then, then?

No. BC was "Before Correctness".

But what is the use of a nanosecond to you or me? I can see that a scientist might need it, but in everyday life we don't have units that small ...

That's where you're wrong! We in everyday life deal in measurements that are so small that they might astonish the average scientist.

Give me an example.

You're having a shower. The water is too hot. You give the cold tap a tiny tweak. Immediately, the water becomes freezing. You turn the cold tap back a fraction. The water becomes boiling. You give the cold tap the tiniest turn back. The water becomes icy again. You ...

Yes, I get the point.

I haven't got to the point yet. There comes a time when you determine to turn the tap the tiniest degree and you reach out towards the tap, and as you touch the tap, maybe even before you touch the tap, the water temperature changes without you having even turned the tap. Now, that is a measurement of distance unknown to science.

Any other examples?

Sure. When you have a kitchen table with one leg shorter than the others, and you put something under that leg to stop the table rocking, a folded piece of paper maybe, then no matter how thin that bit of paper is folded, it is always too thick and the table will start rocking on another axis.

Hmm. Are there any examples of time units that are peculiar to family life also?

Yes. The amount of time that elapses between you switching on a light and the bulb in that light going out.

But that time is infinitesimal, isn't it? It is almost instantaneous, surely?

Yes. But the extraordinary thing is that in the moment between switching on the light and hearing the bulb fizzle and go out, we have time to think the following thoughts. 1. Oh, dear, it's about to go out. 2. I'd better go to the store room and get another bulb. 3. Is it 60-watt? 4. Is it screw-in? 5. No, it's 60-watt, bayonet. 6. Have we got any bayonet 60- watt bulbs? 7. Yes, I got some at Sainsbury's last week. 8. No, I didn't do the Sainsbury's run this time - it was his turn. 9. Did I remember to ask him to get some more bulbs? 10. Did I ask him to get some more sea salt, come to that? 11. Because I am going to need some sea salt for that fish stew I'm making at the weekend ...

Yes, we can think all those thoughts and plenty more in that split second, which gives you some clue as to the speed of human thought and the inefficiency of human shopping methods.

If we can think that fast, we could use time much more efficiently, surely?

It works the other way round too, unfortunately. Sometimes time expands and swallows up our thoughts. When you're using Ceefax, for instance, and waiting for the right page number to come round, it is so slow that it takes several hours of mental time to get there, yet it is impossible to have a logical thought meanwhile.

Maybe it's because we are half listening to the TV programme.


Well, I'm surprised that nobody has named these units before.

Oh, but they have. The English language is littered with words trying to express these concepts of time and space. Jiffy, jot, tittle, whisker, hair's breadth, tad, smidgeon ...

But those expressions of time and space are too vague.

Ah, but what if time and space themselves are vague? What if the space/time continuum is so imprecise that it can only be described in imprecise terms?

Then jiffy would be a more accurate term than nanosecond.


To be continued some other nanosecond.