“If you think you know so much, tell me: how far does light travel in one nanosecond?” It was a metric question of course. One nanosecond of light? it was easy math, but then again, my math… well. I was walking my dog in Houston, and this old curmudgeonly fellow who was squatting in his garden, planting something as it seemed, shouted the question. He had cast a doubtful eye toward me as my dog Sashi decided to do business on his lawn… I stood by with a plastic poop bag at the ready.
Halloween — also, All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Eve — is almost here, so I think of my friend in the garden. He says his brain is damaged. But… he is colorful, witty, of a penetrating intelligence. And he is suspicious of all authorities. Check! All Hallows’ Day, All Saints’ Day.the day of the departed whom we honor and who (may) haunt us… My friend is still alive I hope — I have lost contact. But… The barrier between us and the dead, so goes the tale, becomes penetrable…. All these memories flood to the surface.
Gaze on and know there is measure in your eyes
The mighty meter — gaze on, learners, and tremble! — From the Greek word “metron” — meaning, to measure. It is true that the meter is a royal measure. It emerged only in France in 1793, formally; but it is a unit humanity struggled to define in kingdoms and imperial orders stretching back to antiquity. In India and the Arab world — all these stories of measurement, and marvels to prove the stories; from Egypt, to Rome; to France. Love of regularity, the decimal system.
The decimal gods hidden in the earth
Yes the predecessors — even in its earlier forms and under other names and less exactly — in markets and transactions. The cubit (elbow to fingertip length); the foot. The toise d’écritoire — the writing desk measuring standard that Charlemagne attempted another kind of familiarity. Grains of sand weighed souls– or a feather on a scale did as in ancient Egypt. The idea of precision, and of extremely small units captivated the sensibility from way back. The conception was always based on something real — on some verifiable quantity.
The meter, disguised in earlier forms, dwelled in the measures of fruit and produce, the building measure, and weighing scales. But it also dictates an order, somehow, in replication of some natural processes.
National Geographic recently published a story, “The French Revolution not only toppled a king—it also forged the metric system”. While it associates the meter with the toppling of royalty, back in 1793, and it also stresses how the idea of the meter has obsessed humans, as if it came from some higher place — a power we are still grappling to comprehend.
Light and the nanometer scale…
So, my personal meter-story, from when I was living in Texas. Certain kinds of spiritual people elicit the descriptive term”old soul.” We confer this moniker on those we meet or know, who simply have this ancient wisdom-vibe around them. They project an inner dimension, a wisdom; they are “old souls.” Well, my dog was then, an old soul — perhaps a Tibetan disciple or master of the ancient time. Something… And the fellow I met who questioned me about the nanoscale — an old soul. No doubt
Regardless, he had a reputation in the neighborhood. He was kept telling people he was not well, he was confused, he couldn’t think. He had been a cryptographer for the military and he had gotten brain damage, he said, from gigaspeed RF transmissions, which at certain amplitudes can cook food and certainly human brains. But what do I know. He had sued his employer and apparently this question had come up in court: how far does light travel, in one nanosecond of time?
(Click on the image below, to read about a product for kids from the WILD! Science Store. The WILD! Science Nanoscience Lab – Science Kits for Kids – Amazing STEM Experiments with Tiny Particles – Easy to Follow Activities with Real World Applications.
So the math…
You don’t “see” the speed of light — you don’t see it moving. It is a limit, it is the rate of events. Nothing is faster because light defines the present moment — it is our NOW.
— However an odd thing happens when we measure time and distance. During the 20th C. the most scientific expression of the length of one meter was in fact a unit of time. Light-time. ONE METER is the distance traveled by light in 1/299,792.548ths of one second.
— how does an extension — a distance or length — get converted to a unit of time? well that is a bigger question, it can be answered, but let’s just stick with that concept: any extent of space, say one meter, is equivalent to how far light travels in that unit of time, about 1 billionth of one second.
Chicken cages, fine wine
A nanosecond is one billionth of a second. Light travels 300,000 kilometers (299,792,458 meters) in one second, so divide that distance by one billion, and you get the answer: about 30 centimeters.
A foot, roughly speaking.
What I found out was that he was a lot more lucid, and a more disciplined thinker, than he let on. He was a member of The Wall Street Journal wine club, and he was happy to serve nice beverages on the porch of his Victorian house. We sat surrounded by wire cages where he kept chickens. He brought out books (his father was an author) and gave me a Mayan inspired bamboo walking stick, which i still have. A favorite rooster kept a close eye on the whole porch operation. A rusting Mercedes, grand in its day, kept us company.