As I discussed in my last blog, we can improve our lives by developing a better feeling for very large (to us) quantities, but the same is true with the very small. As I mentioned in a recent post, some modern integrated circuits contain over five billion electronic components (a large number), with transistors separated by only 22 nanometers (small— a human hair is approximately 75,000 nanometers in diameter). Integrated circuits are all over the place these days, and I think it is fair to say that most of us have only a marginal feeling for five billion, and none at all for a nanometer. Does this matter? I think so, for reasons both economic and our overall understanding and appreciation of our world.
As you may have read, not too long ago, through the use of extremely sophisticated instrumentation, scientists succeeded for the first time in detecting a gravity wave, an important phenomenon theorized by Einstein, but only recently measured. There is a nice article by Bryan Green on what that means in the Smithsonian magazine, entitled Catching a Wave, here. The wave had been traveling through the universe for over a billion years, after having been generated by the collision of two black holes the size of the sun. Since gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, there are some very large numbers indeed involved here. I find thinking about the dimensions and the nature of the universe to be good for me, because I can’t even begin to get a sense of them. It certainly keeps one from becoming too centered on oneself. I think we should all occasionally think about how trivial we are as individuals in the cosmic sense of things. But as the Smithsonian article states, detecting this wave required an instrument capable of measuring a variation in length of a laser beam of less than a billionth of a billionth of a meter —a very small distance.
At present there is a great deal of research in an area called nanotechnology with an increasing amount of successful application. In fact we are increasingly profiting from our ability to make use of our knowledge of the behavior of very large numbers of very small things. Some examples are here. Related examples, are resulting from study of the microbiome, or bacteria population of the human body. Our bodies contain more bacteria than human cells. Exactly how many and what kind is still being determined. An interesting article on the topic is here. Or you can just type microbiome into your browser.
Without these bacteria, we can’t live. Anyone who has had a large dose of ciprofloxin (an antibiotic commonly used for treating food poisoning, but that kills good bacteria as well as bad) has had a bit of insight as to the importance of these bacteria. Out of this microbiome research is coming such things as fecal transplants and other new and powerful methods of curing previously difficult medical conditions, which I will not discuss because my wife considers them gross, but which can be found on the internet. Feel free to type it into your browser.
The estimate in one of the web links above is that we have about 50 trillion bacteria in our body, of which 40 trillion live in our colon. We have approximately 30 trillion of our own cells, of which 80 percent are red blood cells. (more big numbers of little things)
Incidentally, another method I have of realizing I am not as big a deal as I sometimes think I am is to consider myself primarily a very sophisticated system to provide food for the bacteria living in and on me. At times they seem much more impressive than I—of course I am better looking.