Happy Localized Temporal Flux!

Which is briefer – Planck time divided by infinity or its inverse?

As I write this soon-to-be-anachronistic piece, it is already the “new year” in various places around the world. For instance, in Hong Kong it is 12:04 A.M on Sunday while it is only 11:04 AM Saturday here (east coast U.S. time).

The truth is far more complicated and far more interesting to consider.

First of all, there is the notion of sidereal time—time relative to a fixed star‘s position. It is used by astronomers, who cannot rely on our own sun’s position as our positional relationship to it is not fixed. As a matter of fact, starting in the 19th century it was noticed that the “fixed stars” are not fixed either. They are just distant enough that they are far more fixed than our local star seems to be. All sorts of calculations can be sorted out to use a non-fixed distant star or bright astronomical object as relatively fixed, but I neither understand these calculations nor would you (I suspect) find them particularly interesting. So, the bottom line is sidereal time is in constant change here on earth. If I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you, we are in different sidereal times. Sidereal time has no respect for time zones. Time zones are useful in that it would be a nightmare to discuss the time it actually is if we were not to bunch time together in chunks like we do.

Second, time is not really measured in chunks like hours, minutes, and seconds. One really has to consider the fastest event in the universe to consider time more accurately, if not more usefully. The shortest time is the calculated Planck time, which is 5.39×10-44 seconds (in other words there are 1.9×1043 tP in one second—roughly 2 followed by 43 “zeros”—an incomprehensibly large number of events on the “standard human time scale (SHTS).” It is the amount of time it takes for a photon in a vacuum to pass through a Planck length, which is also very brief, distance-wise.

I’ll just let you go to other sources for more information, m’kay?

The thing about Planck time is that it is a time derived from a physical standard calculated by Planck, so although useful for physicists, there’s something a little incestuous about the whole business. Various elements have layers of electrons probabilistically scooting around their nuclei at mind-bending rates of speed, while also changing their quantum energy levels from their lowest energy levels (aka ground states) to a variety of higher energy levels. These electronic transitions have been studied and are variously known to behave themselves in very dutiful ways. As they are in constant motion between energy levels and motion takes time, even on the atomic scale, the distances and times are very tiny. Cesium atoms, for instance, experiences 9,192,631,770(±some variation) transitions between energy levels per second. The atomic clocks based on this cesium transition are so accurate that they are calculated to lose only 1 second in 100,000,000 years (one hundred million years!) or so.

Part of the work that scientists do is involved in never being satisfied with a “good enough” answer; they are always looking for increased, accuracy, precision, measurement stability, always looking for a more refined “truth” than that which has been understood before. If you were a professional runner, for instance, and you just achieved a personal best, you would not go home, pop open a bucket of ice cream and settle in for the rest of your life. The next time you ran, you would try to better your personal best. Same with scientists, except the standards are set by nature and the tools we have to achieve better outcomes are constantly in the process of improvement.

Cesium has been the standard for measuring seconds for some years now but has just been displaced from its throne by an ytterbium-based atomic clock that “ticks” 518,000,000,000,000 (518 trillion) atomic events per human second. This allows a crazy level of stability that makes the mere 9 billion mark previously set by the cesium atomic clocks seem like sundials. The following video is a National Institute of Standards and Technology scientist discussing this improvement on video, along with explanatory text.


If all of this weren’t disconcerting enough for you, these atomic clock scientists have found that time varies with altitude as well. In experiments using aluminum atom atomic clocks, they have been able to demonstrate that these variations in time have an effect with each foot of elevation, meaning that our feet are in a different time zone that our heads (does this explain clumsiness? it’s at least a better excuse than “I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time!”). Over a 79-year lifespan, the difference would only amount to about 90 billionths of a second, but it is there all the same.


The whole point is that while we usher in the new year, we might give pause to remember that what we are celebrating is a not entirely accurate astronomical event. The earth has orbited around our sun for the past 365 days and will start that process again. In the meantime, sidereal time and atomic time—and Planck time for that matter—are all moving at rates that we can’t even comprehend unless we’re practicing the science of measuring—and improving—on atomic clocks and the electronic quantum transitions that are involved. From a practical standpoint, the next time you look at a second hand on a clock or watch a minute pass, consider the atom and all the changes it has gone through in that time. Consider that, as the earth rotates and precesses on its axis each day, we are each in our very own time zone. In fact, various parts of our bodies are in various time zones, particularly if you’re measuring our relatively enormous selves in Planck lengths.

So, Happy New Year! We have orbited our sun at the rate of 67,000 miles per hour—or if that seems too fast to you, let’s just say 19 miles per second—over the past roughly 365.256 days and yet, knowing these underlying facts, we will all count down to midnight in the enormously large seconds increments “ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-happy-new-year!” and 6.144 hours later, the new orbit of the earth around the sun will start.

Not to be a party-pooper, but…



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P.S. My introductory excerpt is not a serious question, it’s just a bit of good-natured trolling…

Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


Another Slow Day in Paradise

It was another slow day in paradise.

It was another slow day in paradise. A and B were flitting about the huge meadow with its vast and varied flowers, shrubs, and trees, all of them spaced perfectly so every flower, shrub, and tree got the perfect amount of sunlight, the perfect amount of water sipped from the fertile earth. Every kind of beetle, fly, bee, ant, butterfly, and spider floated about in the gentle breeze, while every kind of bunny, mouse, cat, dog, horse, goat, sheep, pig, lion, giraffe, elephant, and gazelle pranced about, munching on all of the good things there were to eat, which sprang back up as soon as they were nibbled. A stream ran through the center of the meadow but then again there were streams with stepping stones every so often all over the place. Some had waterfalls and some had pools of just the right depth in their centers, causing the stream to widen a bit more than usual, then tighten back up after the pool was behind the coursing waters.

Theit (that’s what it liked to call itself when it came down to check in with A and B; it wasn’t a real name, sort of a joke—”the it”—you see?) had just wafted in from everywhere and coalesced in the form of a fluorescent tapir. Theit had tried subtler appearances but had to spend too much time convincing these two that it was it. Theit did it gently as the last time it at coalesced, A and B had run off screaming and it took precious seconds to find them cowering behind a baobab tree. This time, Theit found form behind a yew bush growing near one of the streams and strolled out to talk to “the experiment,” as it called them in its mind.

“Hi A. Hi B. How’s it going down here?” The fluorescent tapir spoke in a perfect East African accent, which sounded startlingly like many of the sounds A and B heard on a daily basis, except shaped more carefully and regularly into sounds that made sense to their minds.

A and B stared at the tapir and knew what it said. This sort of thing had happened before and while it had been confusing and a little terrifying at first, they had grown accustomed to unexpected creatures sauntering up to them and having a chat. After all, they spent a good deal of any day doing the same thing with squirrels and horses. Walking up, having a chat, the creatures chatting back. Why not this oddly-hued beast with truncated snout?

“Hi Theit!” they said in unison. It was like they shared a brain. Not always in a good way either. “It’s going the same as always. Nothing new to say, just having a nice day speaking to everyone and enjoying the sunshine and streams and fruits. Did you want something in particular?”

“Well, yes. It’s lesson time.” Theit noticed that both of them shuddered. Theit was aware this was not their favorite activity, which was exclusively wandering about bothering their fellow creatures and picking an excessive number of flowers, which it had warned them about on numerous occasions: “They’re for the bees and butterflies, you two. All you’re doing is taking beauty out of the ground, sniffing it, then throwing it down. Just lean over and do your sniffing on the living thing, please!” he had said. They went ahead and picked flowers as if they had no memory at all.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Theit had a really confused sense of time as it meant nothing to it at all, while still being this counter-function it had implanted in the world so that stuff might eventually get done.

A and B shook their heads. No surprise. And, to be fair, it may have been more than a day. Theit needed to work out how to be more regular in lesson-giving.

“Well, we worked through addition and subtraction. Remember those? I give you two fruit, then I give you two more. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” they said in unison.

Theit breathed in slowly and then let the air escape from the tapirs lungs. “No. I first gave you two fruit. At that time you had two fruit. Then I gave you two more. How many fruit did you have?”

“Two” they said in unison. Then B said “Two two.”

“Good, B! And how many is two two? What do we call that number of fruit?”

“Fruit” said A. “Two two” said B.

“And what do we call “two two,” B?”

“Four?” said B. “Fruit” said A.

“Very good, A! I can hear that you remember the word for two two! That is very nice! Please teach that to A so he remembers, okay?”

“Yes” said B.

“Okay, let’s see how you remember subtraction. If you have four fruit and I ask for two fruit back so that I may share them with other creatures. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” said B.” “Fruit” said A. At this point Theit thought A’s time might be better spent smacking himself in the head with a rock but Theit didn’t make him do that. Although that made sense. That would have been beneath Theit’s mission with this experiment, which was purely about creation, observation, data, and outcomes.

“B, could you help out A with this subtraction concept? There are bigger numbers to add and subtract and even different ideas that are not addition and subtraction and we must talk about them as well.”

“Okay” said B. A said “fruit!”

Theit was a little worried. It seemed that B was slowly understanding the information being shared but A was not. And both of them, to be honest, seemed more concerned with playing with the creatures and picking flowers than they were in learning. How was multiplication and division going to go if adding and subtracting up to four was proving this difficult? Theit let a rare shudder ripple through the tapir’s frame, although Theit was the one shuddering. Was this another failed experiment like the bacteria that ate all its own young and didn’t multiply? Or the lizard that popped off its own head when it was caught by a predator? They seemed like good ideas at the time—bacteria that controlled themselves, lizards with an escape mechanism—but those had gone wrong.

Theit didn’t really know how long that thought lasted. Was it brief or was it really long? In any case, Theit looked up and A was chasing a bunny through the meadow grasses and flowers and B was chasing A. Neither A nor B were catching what they chased but they laughed as they ran. You couldn’t really hate that.

“Come here, you two” said the fluorescent tapir. “More studying to do!”

A and B took their time but came over looking a little petulant with the tapir, which was an odd look as tapir’s usually provoke giggles rather than petulance. Theit didn’t care. It was time for lessons.

“Okay, let’s try something. It’s a trick I use all the time and it works on stars, planets, galaxies, and universes. I even used it here to make all these grasses and trees and flowers and bunnies. You like all these things, right?”

A stared and B nodded. A looked at B and noticed the nodding thing, which he had seen before, and nodded as B took the time to stare.

“Now, I’m going to talk about multiplication. It’s a way to make big numbers of things out of small numbers of things. Just listen and see if you get a pattern. We’re going to start with “one.” One multiplied by one is one. You can say this more simply just by saying “times” whenever you would say “multiplied by,” okay?”

“Okay” they said in unison. Theit had no idea if they were mimicking him or understanding, so he went on.

“If one times one is one, guess what one times two is?”

A said “one” and B said “two.” Perhaps there was some hope for B.

“Next. One times three is what, B?”

B said “three.”

“A. Anything?” asked Theit.

“One” said A, looking quite determined. Inside, the fluorescent tapir sighed a little sigh.

“B, what is one times four?”

“Four” replied B. A rubbed his leg and looked at a flower.

“Let’s try it something, B. What is four times one?”

“One” said B. Theit’s brief snout wiggled a little. It was confirmed. This was going to take a long time. Whatever would happen when the discussion turned to algebra? The snout wiggled ferociously at this thought. Theit sent a calming wave of thought through the tapir and got it to settle down. No one liked a condescending teacher, even if the teacher was a loveable tapir in bright colors.

Theit had a thought. There was a lot to do. Although Theit was coalesced in various forms all over this universe and every other universe doing this same kind of stuff, Theit thought that it might be time to pay attention to some of the more curious experiments and leave these two to their own devices. Their meadow too. It was a nice meadow and was perfectly balanced to live without dying and replenish itself without looking too sad. That took a certain amount of stamina from Theit’s other projects, which were infinite in number and completely manageable but still….


Theit visited A and B, this time as an enormous paramecium with lots of undulating cilia. A and B knew it was Theit because they had never seen this thing before. Although they found it sort of horrible, they also knew that it was okay to approach it as it ciliated its way over to them.

“A. B. How are you?”

“Good” they said in unison.

“Getting enough to eat?”


“Finding enough playmates among the squirrels and bunnies?” Theit asked about these because it seemed that A and B had a particular fondness for them over the larger animals or the ones who roared, although they all lived well next to each other. As was planned.

They both nodded. That seemed like an advance. Perhaps B had taught A the nod thing.

“Okay. Well. I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

“Good” they said again, although perhaps they meant that they would like to hear the good news first. That’s how Theit interpreted it.

“Well then. The good news is that all of this stuff you like is going to stay here. You can play with it all and eat fruit and drink from the streams and have as much fun as you like. Would you like to hear the bad news now?” Theit asked.

“Good,” which Theit took as a tacit understanding that they would now like to hear the bad news.

“Well. Hmmm. The bad news. Erm. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I’m going to be away for a while. I’m not going to be able to perform maintenance on this place. Instead, you’re going to have to start doing it yourself. What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m going to give everything the power to multiply and divide but I’m also going to give everything the power to add and subtract. New stuff will come alive and old stuff will die. Bunnies and horses and trees and flowers and bees will all multiply but their cells—the little bits of life inside them that make all of this stuff work—will divide. That probably makes no sense to you at all since you haven’t really graduated from basic addition and subtraction (and I really don’t want to think about algebra or calculus, Theit said internally) but I’m hoping that if you see it happening it will make sense over time. It may take a while.”

A and B stared at Theit and didn’t move. They really had no idea what Theit was talking about. This was often the case and sometimes if they remained really still for a sufficient amount of time, Theit was quiet and loped off into the trees. It didn’t seem like this thing was going to lope but they could hope.

“It’s been nice, A and B. You’re the only ones I’ve made that are as hairless as you are. Really, you’re just a variation on a theme. See the hairy ones over there? The ones chasing after a zebra? Yeah. You’re the hairless—relatively speaking, of course—variety. And you walk on your back legs without using your front legs. I’m pretty sure that’s going to have consequences, by the way, but that’s beside the point. I do like you. Don’t take any of what’s about to happen personally. It’s not. Really. I just have a lot to do.”

With this statement, Theit coalesced a giant chunk of wrapped paper blocks out of the air and opened one to a middle page.

“See these? I’m going to call them “books” because they don’t have a name. They don’t have a name because I’ve been thinking about them and it’s come time to make some, so here they are. If you look at this page (it’s called a page, guys), you’ll see black squiggly marks. That’s called “writing” and this writing is in the first language of your creature-type. It tells you stuff. But I can’t wait around for you to learn what it says. I’m going to call this “homework” and you have to worry about what it says or you’re going to be a little out of luck for a long time. Okay?”

“Okay” said A and B.

“Okay” said Theit. Then he made the paramecium lope off into the woods.

A and B stared at the “books” and then stared at each other and then sat down.

Then they got up and ran after the bunnies and squirrels.

After a while, A and B noticed that the grasses changed colors and were replaced with other grasses and other flowers and that when they picked the flowers, they didn’t grow back. They noticed that when they picked fruit from the trees, the fruit didn’t grow right back. They noticed that the beasts who roared stopped other creatures from moving and tore them apart and that the smaller creatures kept away from the roarers. Some of the larger creatures were none too thrilled with the roarers either, so a lot of creatures moved away from them and lived in trees. A and B moved along with them. After they ate all the low-hanging fruit, they climbed trees to get the other fruit. After they ate those, they started to look at the bunnies and squirrels sort of like they saw the roarers looking at the bunnies and squirrels. They caught a few and tore them apart but then the bunnies and squirrels got smart and stayed away. And then the streams dried up, so A and B had to start walking. Their hips hurt. Their feet hurt. Their lower backs hurt. And they learned to feel pain, which led them to cry. Then they learned to say mean things to each other, which made one or both of them cry more.

Then one day, B got fatter and fatter and eventually a new creature popped out. B took care of the little creature until it grew. A wandered around playing with animals and flowers and leaving B to do all the work of raising the creature, which was as hairless as they were. And they kept walking until they found a place to call “home,” which was not much like their old place and had less fruit and the creatures stayed away. But it was home and they raised their creature and then another.

There was only one thing they had forgotten. They left the books at the place where Theit made them and had no idea how to get back there.

It took a long time for them to figure anything out. They remembered Theit fondly now and made up some stories, almost none of which were true. And they left out the bits about the fluorescent tapir and the enormous paramecium. They had a difficult time believing those themselves. So who would believe them?

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Paramecium caudatum

I Was Nominated (and Accept)

Confabler nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award!

My distant, yet close friend Confabler has nominated me for the Shiny Shiny Sunshine Award. I love her imagination and sense of whimsy; she lets her muse du jour lead and she follows. There’s a wonderful freedom to that which is (1) difficult to allow in the rational process of “writing” and (2) enjoyable to find.

1. If you were to choose an insect that would take over the world after human extinction, who would that be?

It sort of depends on our route to extinction. If it involved an epidemic, the population of flies might see a giant uptick. This would be a good one:

Gauromydas heros

If it is a slow process, then I nominate the Japanese Rhinoceros beetle because it would be awesome if creatures  with such improbably fashioned protuberances were to be the alpha species (Megasoma and Titan beetles would be acceptable alternatives):

Allomyrina dichotoma

 If our extinction took all other terrestrial life along for the ride, I would like to see this enormous isopod (a relative of our terrestrial roly-polies) rule the seas (note inclusion of actual human hands for sense of scale):

The underside of a male Bathynomus giganteus, a species of giant isopod captured in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2002.

2. How old were you when you first read Harry Potter? And your favorite author of course?

I was pretty old when I read my only Harry Potter book (the first one). I didn’t enjoy it enough to complete the series, although I’ve seen all the films and enjoyed them well enough. In the period I read that first one, I was typically reading a lot of history and didn’t find that it was a good use of my time. When I was really young, I read the Classics Illustrated versions of novels, which were quite good at introducing a curious young mind to the wonders of literature without having to do the work (sort of illustrated CliffsNotes (I didn’t use these in school though), if you will). When I was a little older, I read Robert E. Howard, Sax Rohmer, John Carter of Mars, H. Rider Haggard, Stanley Weinbaum, George McDonald fantasies, etc.

My favorite author is Gabriel Garcia Marquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. His writing is so rich, amusing, full of simple wisdom and abundant humanity it is hard to believe he was just a human being writing about the lives he saw playing out around him. I literally would read some passages and have to put the book down as if I had just sipped the richest chocolate elixir in the world and needed to savor it until I sipped again. His Spanish-to-English translators did a good job in getting it right; Gregory Rabassa (OHYoS translator) was even praised by Garcia Marques himself!

3. If you were invisible what is the craziest thing that you would do?

Here’s an odd one: Go and hang around bigots, transcribe their conversations, and publish them for the world to see how terrible people speak when they think no one is listening (but, oh yeah, we have the internet so this already happens). If I could walk through things, which seems fair since I’m invisible, I would go around seeing what it felt like to do that—see if there were different textures to different things on the inside than on their surface.

4.what food makes you feel like a hungry hyena?

This has changed so much over time! These days, I don’t get this kind of urge anymore. In my early adult (late teen?) years… ICE CREAM!!!!

5. A song that makes you dream?

Gymnopedie #1 by Erik Satie

6. Have you ever planted a tree?

Yes. Unasked but answered: quite a few!

7. Choose your man: superman/ Spiderman/ iron man and if he was your best friend one thing that you would make him do?

Can I choose Supergirl? If I can, I would have her take me around to various places in the world, build shelters so I could stay there and visit free, then whisk me off to the next place on “our” list (she would be enjoying the sight-seeing with me, of course! What kind of boor do you think I am?!?!).

8.How much time do you spend in front of the mirror everyday?

As little as possible, which involves shaving and brushing my teeth. I find that shaving my teeth first helps with the brushing.

9.why you started blogging and tell us about the post enjoyed the most making.

I was having a bunch of conversations with people who did not seem to understand the wonderful humility of learning and doing science and wanted to see how well I could write about how science is a discipline that can assist us all in not leaning out too far over our skis (getting ahead of ourselves and pretending we know stuff we don’t). Blogging has become so much more than that since my first post on June 22, 2016, and I have had so much fun writing fiction and revisiting some poetry I wrote several decades ago (and finding them easier to “fix” than I remembered).

I’m not sure which of my posts I enjoyed the most. They’re all my children so I like them all? I probably like the odd bits of fiction that I had no idea were inside me when I woke up and then found them on the page looking up at me. I like The Big Day of these. Of the science posts, I like The Mess: Parts 1 & 2 and the Appendix 1 items best (maybe). Of the historical pieces, I like Risk Management. Of the life pieces, I like Building Blocks the best. Anyone who reads this is encouraged to make up their own mind; I am hopelessly biased.

10. Which social media platform are you addicted to (including WordPress)?

I don’t do much social media except WordPress. I don’t like Facebook at all and deleted my account. WordPress is addicting but in a very healthy way! You get to create something and share it with new friends from all over the world. That’s a great addiction have.

Now the rules:

1.thank the person that nominated you.

Thank you, Confabler. You are a true virtual friend, and I don’t mean that in any Pokemon way either!

2. Answer the questions from your nominator.


3. Nominate fellow bloggers you follow.

Hereinafter lie the following nominees in no particular order (order, of course, being an illusion):

Confabler – it would be completely wrong not to boomerang this thing back at her; how could I like what she writes and like that she nominated me but ignore why we share interests at all?

November_child –  in her poetry, every word is judiciously considered for its various meanings and the images they stir and she makes great short stories that are deep and playful and serious all at the same time

anonymouslyautistic – for doing an AMAZING job of writing about this misunderstood spectrum of living – and for inviting others who share her interest to contribute

English Lit Geek – because she searches the web and her library for poems that communicate her inner soul to us all out here in the ‘sphere and I appreciate this!

Wiser Daily – because this guy writes REALLY well about every single subject he wraps his mind around, because he is not a scientist but writes extremely clearly about science, because he is just a damned good writer!

Breathmath – because they are doing an astonishingly serious job of trying to get the world to see the beauty in mathematics

Sheryl – because she’s written a book, is working on others, has great tips for doing the same, and kindly visits my offerings fairly often

The Nexus – because he writes REALLY well about physics and does a great job of doing what I set out to do, whether I’m doing it on any given day or not

The Biology Yak – because she is passionate about biology and shares her passion in every word on every topic she chooses

afternoonifiedlady – even though I have no idea what it is to be an afternoonifiedlady, I love her rants about living with and without her ex and trying to wrestle with notions of romance – she is very witty and amusingly pissed off!

Yaskhan – for her lovely, succinct way with words

urbanagscientist – because she is at least as worried about the misunderstanding of science as I am

Luke Atkins – because he writes really well about difficult subjects and he writes like the stuff matters a lot, which it absolutely does!

And there are more in my list of 119 writers that I am following but this is enough for now.

4. Give them 10 questions to answer.

If you wish (and I clearly cannot impose this on any of you, please respond to confabler’s funny questions. I enjoyed them, maybe you will too!

Kind regards, MSOC


It was Generous of confabler to choose me. Now I have to Jump off and do other stuff!


Every year, just like you, I have a “birth day,” which is a misnomer as I am not born on that day every year, although I was once. When people ask me why I don’t like to acknowledge my birthday I tell them that time is a continuum. It breezes from one tiny fraction of a second to the next without counting where (when?) it has been or where (when?) it is going. There are no fractions of seconds, of course. We made seconds up and then when those were too large, we fractionated them into as many decimal bits as we needed.

Every year, just like you, I have a “birth day,” a misnomer as I am not born on that day every year, although I was once. When people ask me why I don’t like to acknowledge my birthday I tell them that time is a continuum. It breezes from one tiny fraction of a second to the next without counting where (when?) it has been or where (when?) it is going. There are no fractions of seconds, of course. We made seconds up and when those were too large, we fractionated them into as many decimal bits as we needed. We made minutes up at some point, perhaps when hours seemed too long or work seemed too slow. We made hours up when the days passed like sap in the wintertime. Days, weeks, months and years were strongly suggested by planetary, lunar and solar phenomena. To our credit, we noticed these patterns and live our lives waiting for them to begin – or end – a hard day, a boring hour-long meeting, a cold winter, a hot-and-muggy summer, the wet season, the dry season, etc. For a nice review, have a look at this.

Typically, though, we don’t think of times much shorter than 0.17 seconds. That is approximately the time it takes to count each of the six beats (or in poetry, “feet”) in “one-Mississippi,” etc. The “one” gets sort of two beats and the “Mississippi” goes in four. If we are keyed into a speed sport, we may split things down to the tenth of a second – I’m not sure I can do this, but I’m relatively certain that people who judge these kinds of events may have a refined sense of one-tenth of a second. Then it’s down to the hundredths of a second and, although all sorts of stopwatches and “photo finish” timers work in that realm, I can’t imagine that the human mind can honestly do much more than watch as the hundredths accumulate into tenths.

There are many time intervals that are extremely difficult for humans to comprehend, though, very short and pretty long. At one end of the range, we have a unit developed in physics called Planck time, named after Max Planck, one of the brilliant theoretical physicists of the 20th Century. This unit is defined as the amount of time that it takes for light to travel one Planck length in a vacuum. A Planck length (not a piratical plank length) is very short indeed: 1.616199×10−35 meters (m), which is about 1×10−20 the diameter of a proton, which is very tiny and comes in somewhere between 0.84×10−15 to 0.87×10−15 m. It is conceived of as the shortest theoretically measurable length within an order of magnitude (or a factor of 10). How much time is a Planck time then? It is a mind-bendingly brief 5.39116×10−44 seconds. Let me show you a comparison between numbers. First, we have 1/10 second:
0.10 or 1/6 second 0.17 (the “Miss” in “Mississippi,” let’s say)

Now, let’s show a Planck time:
0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000538116 seconds


To say that differently, but not necessarily more helpfully, there are about 2×10+43 of these Planck times in one second (simply the inverse of 5.39116×10−44 seconds), which is obviously a huge number (2 followed by 43 zeros). The links for Planck time and length will allow you to explore this matter more thoroughly, but both use the speed of light (c=3.00×108 m/s), the gravitational constant (G=6.674×10−11 N⋅m2/kg2) and Planck’s constant (actually, the reduced Planck’s constant, which divides Planck’s constant by 2π), which is 1.054571800(13)×10−34 J⋅s. All this to say something quite simple – Planck time (and length) is derived in a fairly straightforward way using some well-established physical constants, although with some very careful consideration by Dr. Planck. His considerations have held up well; Planck’s constant is part of any useful high school chemistry or physics curriculum.

The real takeaway here is that time and action are inextricably linked. For a Planck time to elapse, a Planck length must be traversed by a photon in a vacuum. A photon must start somewhere and, on its way to somewhere else, it must etch a Planck length in space. This linkage is pretty neat, however resolutely transfixed and “motionless” the avid reader may be in their chair. How can I say that? Are we ever still? No.

Consider the amount of time it takes to absorb one photon of the appropriate energy into the electronic shell of an atom. The photon is either moving at the speed of light (in a vacuum) or somewhere close to this speed if it is traveling through a non-vacuum medium. This modified speed of light is calculated by dividing the speed of light (c) by the index of refraction (n). The higher n is the slower the modified speed of light. Here’s a table of diminishing speeds of light:

Material Index of Refraction
Vacuum 1.0000 299,792,458 m/s
Air 1.0003 299,702,547 m/s
Ice 1.31 228,849,205 m/s
Water 1.333 224,900,569 m/s
Ethyl Alcohol 1.36 220,435,631 m/s
Plexiglas 1.51 198,538,052 m/s
Crown Glass 1.52 197,231,880 m/s
Light Flint Glass 1.58 189,742,062 m/s
Dense Flint Glass 1.66 180,597,866 m/s
Zircon 1.923 155,898,314 m/s
Diamond 2.417 124,034,943 m/s
Rutile 2.907 103,127,781 m/s
Gallium phosphide 3.50 85,714,285 m/s

If the energy of an atom and the energy of a photon, moving at whatever speed after going through whatever medium, are compatible, the photon is absorbed by the atom with an electron quantum leaping proportionately. This process takes about 1 femtosecond or 1x10−15 seconds (or 0.000000000000001 seconds). There is some infinitesimal distance involved in these transitions, but the distances, if they are meaningful at all, are on the order of Planck lengths and do not add meaningfully to the time it takes a photon to be absorbed.

Photon Absorbance transitions

After that absorption occurs, a new cascade of intra-atomic events occur, each with an associated time, each a tiny bit longer, slower, more human-paced, than the absorption event. I would enumerate them, but instead, I’ll just use a picture, a table and a video for your edification.

Screen shot 2011-03-01 at 9.51.13 AM.png


Table 1

Transition Time Scale Radiative Process?
Absorption 10-15 s yes
Internal Conversion 10-14 – 10-11 s no
Vibrational Relaxation 10-14 – 10-11 s no
Fluorescence 10-9 – 10-7 s yes
Intersystem Crossing 10-8 – 10-3 s no
Phosphorescence 10-4 – 10-1 s yes


The other completely nuts thing to keep in mind is that every single molecule and ever single atom in your body is vibrating and rotating – continuously! Every molecule we breathe, eat, digest, incorporate into our teeming collection of collaborative molecules is doing exactly that same thing. Here is a set of nifty .gif images to help you imagine the critical turmoil going on inside (and around) us all:

Symmetrical stretching.gifAsymmetrical stretching.gifScissoring.gif

Modo rotacao.gifWagging.gifTwisting.gif

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molecular_vibration)

These represent the different modes of vibration along covalent bonds. In addition to this motion, there are the rotations of each atom at the ends of each bond – and these modes of rotation get complicated really quickly, with spin orientations and precessing (this is what a top does when it spins – the wobble is precession) around axes. It’s all really a maddening, continuous mechanism of complexity. Even if all these molecules inside us were cooled to absolute zero, the motion would continue, although slowed. And all of them are like tiny clocks running at tiny fractions of a second – at an astonishing rate of speed, at roughly 10,000,000,000,000 to 100,000,000,000,000 times per second.

But I am writing about time, not intra-atomic events, and we could all easily be lost inside an atom for the rest of time if caution is abandoned. It is part of the definition of being a chemist – getting lost in the atoms (or at least the molecules). And with phosphorescence events taking a tenth of a second (1×10-1 seconds (or 0.1 s)), we’re at the interval for phosphorescence and can almost comprehend this.

Let’s move on.

Human lives are measured in seconds as well. Nine months of gestation is 23,328,000 seconds (give or take); ask any mother and she will be able to vouch for the satisfaction and endlessness of each second. We go to first grade at 6 years or 189,216,000 seconds and graduate high school after 567,648,000 seconds. Lives get into a murky middle bit after this and people hit benchmarks at various times, but it all comes down to life expectancy in the end. The people in Monaco, one of the richest in the world, have an average life expectancy of 89.52 years, which is 2,823,102,720 seconds – almost 3 billion seconds, people, while the people of Chad, bordered by Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Cameroon, have a life expectancy of 49.81 years – 1,570,808,160 seconds – very close to being half the average life expectancy of people in the Principality of Monaco, bordered on three sides by France and on the fourth by the Mediterranean, home of casinos, yachts and the Grand Prix. In the United States, average life expectancy is 79.68 years or 2,512,788,480 seconds, 311 million seconds less than the average citizen of Monaco; when stated that way, it seems like a huge difference, doesn’t it?

But we’re not done measuring out human life. In the U.S., we count forward from 0 (zero) B.C. and are currently in the year 2016 as I write this. Two thousand and sixteen years is composed of 63,576,576,000 seconds, only about 22.5 Monaco lifespans ago, but 40.5 Chad lifetimes ago (sort of crazy when you consider it that way). But B.C. (or B.C.E., the term used by anthropologists and anyone studying world history instead of Western European and Middle Eastern history) is just a convenient temporal interrupt in a much longer series of events.

Our species crept into the genome around 200,000 years ago – a time that dwarfs the 2,016 years B.C.E. by two orders of magnitude or roughly 100-fold (100 x). Two hundred thousand years is a whole bunch of seconds – 6,307,200,000,000 seconds, or six trillion three hundred seven billion, two hundred million seconds (the time seems more awesome when typed out as words). But we’re not done yet. Anthropologists have found lots of bones of our ancestors, our nearest relatives to the great apes appearing between 6 and 7 million years ago, 30 to 35-fold more time than for the slow evolution of Homo sapiens, or between 189.2 trillion and 220.8 trillion seconds ago (keep in mind that the 0.2 and 0.8 in those number represent 200 billion and 800 billion seconds).

But let’s keep going. The Cretaceous–Tertiary (K–T) extinction occurred around 65 million years ago; current theories favor a huge meteor striking the earth in the northern Yucatan peninsula; 2,049,840,000,000,000 seconds ago (2 quadrillion seconds). But the earth is believed to have coalesced from hot gases and particles of stardust into something like its current orbit around the sun around 4.5 billion years ago; various models move the digit after the “5” around (is it 4.49 or 4.54?), but there is general scientific consensus around the 4.5 billion figure. 4.5 billion years equals 141,912,000,000,000,000 seconds quadrillion seconds ago, and it was not a livable planet at the time.

The universe, on the other hand, is yet another order of magnitude older. There are at least five models for its age, but the weighted mean of these models puts the age at 12.94 billion years, thus giving the earth about 8 billion years to coalesce into the nasty, raging bit of heat that cooled to what we know and love now. If you do the dimensional analysis here (as I have done so often above), you get a universe that has been in existence creating stars and galaxies and solar systems and planets and moons and asteroids – and that continues to do all of those activities VERY actively right up until today – you get a universe of 408,075,840,000,000,000 seconds (408.1 quadrillion seconds). The universe has been in existence, plus or minus 2.3 billion years or so (see the link above) for 162,399,598.4 average American lifespans (one hundred sixty-two million three hundred ninety-nine thousand five hundred ninety-eight point four lifetimes).

Why have I taken you through a journey from Planck time to the age of the universe? To suggest two thoughts:

  1. When humans try to imagine events in time, all of us start getting a little foggy about the whole business when it exceeds one of our average lifespans; even then, it is a rare twenty-year-old that can imagine what it means to be forty or sixty or eighty and the eighty-year-old increasingly feels that everything happened “as if it were yesterday.”
  2. While I have divided up time into fractions of seconds at one end of the scale (the Planck time) and quadrillions of seconds at the other end of time, time is not a series of discrete events; it is continuous and seamless. If one divides a Planck time by another Planck time, the fraction of a second gets shorter – it is about 1×10-89 seconds. One can keep doing this – infinite divisibility – and never reach the continuous nature of time; it will always result in smaller and smaller fractions of time with seamless continuity of the asymptote.

It is entirely possible that we are at the measurement limits regarding the start of our universe. Our current measurements are “birth-of-universe-dependent,” that is, the phenomena that we measure to determine its age are all related to the birth of this universe, the one in which we are a tiny particle orbiting a tiny sun in a tiny solar system in a huge galaxy, which is one of countless huge galaxies (we keep on finding more galaxies) that comprise the universe as we know it SO FAR. Stephen Hawking currently hypothesizes that our universe is one such event in a multiverse. Consider a near-infinitely dense point somewhere in space-time (a “singularity”). From time to time, the density becomes too dense for the singularity to contain it and it “burps” out superfluous matter into space-time, but not in the plane and/or dimension of our universe. Sometimes, these burps are tiny and are reabsorbed by the singularity, but sometimes a new universe of some magnitude buds off and starts expanding. For additional erudition on this idea, please watch the following videos:


This is heady stuff and nearly impossible to understand, except through metaphor and analogy, without the help of advanced mathematics and profound amounts of deep thought (I am a mere chemist and find that I am boggled by these concepts, but I will not deny their allure (p.s. a mere chemist is different from the mythological mer-chemist)).

I will not get into how long this, our, universe is likely to exist. It is an imponderable but is being pondered. Let’s leave the future to those who speculate on those matters (cosmologists and physicists).To conclude, time is a dimension that is infinitely brief (or continuous) and infinitely long (or continuous). Dividing it into human events is convenient, but none of us should pretend that we understand it except by comparing it with events in our own lives. This is not always true; anthropologists, paleontologists, cosmologists, physicists, geologists live on a timeline that, by nature of their study, makes more sense to them and is relatively unlimited by average lifespans and birthdays. We should be humble when we consider the enormity of what has been observed and consider the enormity of what has been observed and consider carefully what is known while allowing that we are not done observing and trying to learn and probably will never finish unless we cease to exist altogether.


A Brief, Mysterious Biography

I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry.

Biographical note: I was born in 1953 to people I don’t know and raised by people I wish I knew better. I have an academic background in literature and science and have worked in positions of increasing responsibility for over thirty years in one realm of the healthcare industry. I am interested in many areas of knowledge; literature and science (obviously), but also film, art, many types of music, various episodes in our peculiar, shared, often ignored history, political behavior (rather than politics), various religions. I wish there were more time in every day and more days in every life. I have more books than I know what to do with and keep on adding things to my wishlist that I may never get to read, but it is better to be curious than not, alive than dead.