The Shortest Time Interval Ever Measured

Image from Alpha Building Consultants

According to The Times of India, in 2010 a group of German physicists claimed “to have measured the shortest-ever time interval by discovering the tiniest duration an electron takes to leave the atom.”

The scientists found that “when light is absorbed by atoms, the electrons become excited and get ejected from the atom if the photons carry sufficient energy.”  However, when electrons are separated from atoms there is a time delay of 20 attoseconds, “which they claim is the shortest time interval measured to date.”

Reasonably, it is a bit difficult for us to wrap our heads around such a short interval of time, so consider this: one attosecond is one billionth of one billionth of a second.  It can be written as 1 as, 0.000000000000000001 seconds, 10-18 seconds, or described as one quintillionth of a second.  Still fuzzy?

To really help us envision this length of time, the BBC News painted this picture:  “If 100 attoseconds is stretched so that it lasts one second, one second would last 300 million years on the same scale.”

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Scale of the Universe

from Scale of the Universe, an interactive website

As many of you know, Charles and Ray’s film Powers of Ten takes the viewer on an adventure of magnitudes. It is a journey that shouldn’t be missed.

This blog, which is based on the Eameses’ film, is another way to look at the relative size of things in the universe.  It explores powers of ten through the lens of current events, scientific discoveries, and even the mundane–say, the amount of caffeine in your average cup of coffee (which happens to be 10-04 kg).

If you want to consider scale in another way still, check out a remarkably fun, visual and interactive website called Scale of the Universe, developed by Cary Huang at htwins.  This site allows you to “zoom from the edge of the universe to the quantum foam of spacetime and learn about everything in between.”

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The Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam

Three Gorges Dam, Sandouping, Hubei Province, China. Photograph by w:User:Nowozin. File from Wikimedia Commons

China’s Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the world’s largest hydroelectric project.  Built from 30 million cubic meters of concrete (10+07), it stands 606 feet tall (10+02) and spans 1.5 miles across.

While the Dam’s construction employed 60,000 workers (10+04), it also displaced 1.3 million people (10+06), leveled 1,350 towns (10+03) and destroyed 1,200 existing archeological sites–along with another 8,000 that were yet to be explored.

It was estimated in 1992 that the Dam would cost $8.3 billion to build.  However, at the time of its 2009 completion, China reported to have spent $23 billion (10+10), while others say the figure might have been as high as $88 billion.

The Three Gorges Dam holds back 10 trillion gallons of water (10+13) and produces roughly 84 billion kilowatt-hours of clean electricity a year.  That’s enough energy for one tenth of China’s entire population; nonetheless, this controversial project continues to raise concerns about the social, environmental and public safety impacts of such a large-scale venture.

Hats off to:
Facts and Details, The Design Observer Group, and the Smart Museum of Art, whose curator, Wu Hung, organized the exhibition Displacement: The Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art.

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Messier 9

Messier 9

A detailed image of Messier 9, a globular star cluster. Image credit: NASA & ESA

“The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has produced the most detailed image so far of Messier 9, a globular star cluster located close to the center of the galaxy. This ball of stars is too faint to see with the naked eye, yet Hubble can see over 250,000 [10+05] individual stars shining in it.

Messier 9, pictured here, is a globular cluster, a roughly spherical swarm of stars that lies around 25,000 light-years [or 1.47 x 10+17 miles] from Earth, near the center of the Milky Way, so close that the gravitational forces from the galactic center pull it slightly out of shape.

Globular clusters are thought to harbor some of the oldest stars in our galaxy, born when the Universe was just a small fraction of its current age. As well as being far older than the sun—around twice its age [and therefore 9 billion or 10+09 years old]—the stars of Messier 9 also have a markedly different composition, and are enriched with far fewer heavier elements than the sun.”

Learn more about Messier 9 at by clicking here.

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Image courtesy of

On March 22, 2012, people across the globe celebrated World Water Day.  Below are some interesting water facts from and

2.2 million (10+06) people die every year from diseases related to unsafe drinking water.

On average, humans consume 16,000 gallons (10+04) of water in a lifetime–that’s 256,000 8oz glasses (10+05).

The surface area of the Earth is 5.1006 x 10+08 km2.  70% of Earth is covered by water, but only 2.5% of that is fresh water while the other 97.5% is salt water. 

1.2 billion people (10+09) don’t have access safe drinking water and half the world’s population is without adequate water purification systems.

500,000 tons (10+05) of pollutants enter U.S. lakes and rivers every single day.  That’s 365 billion pounds (10+11) each year.

Out of 191 of our world’s nations, 10 of them share 65% of the world’s annual water resources.  Americans take the cake, using 2,500 cubic liters of water each year, or double the world’s average.  That is enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool for each and every one of us.

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Powers of Ten Cookies = Love

Image credit: Aggleton's Photostream

Recipe for Giada de Laurentiis’ Double Chocolate Chip Cookies:

  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, such as Ghiradelli, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
    2 x 10+12 pounds of chocolate is produced worldwide each year.
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
    According to, one tablespoon of butter has 420 kilojules of energy—all from fat.  420 kilojoules is the equivalent of 420,000 joules (10+05) or 100 calories.
  • 1 cup flour
    Industrial mills produce hundreds of types of flour for every conceivable application.  According to Food History, they produce roughly 320 million tons (10+08) of wheat flour for human consumption each year.
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
    There are two types of cocoa powder: Dutch and Natural.  The difference is that cocoa beans are soaked in potassium carbonate (138.205 grams per mole) to make Dutch cocoa powder. This neutralizes their acidity.
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    Baking powder releases carbon dioxide when moistened. The average diameter of a carbon dioxide molecule is 10-10 meters. According to Eat By Date, if you ever see huge holes in your bread or other baked goods, it is because the leavening agent wasn’t completely mixed into the flour, causing a clump of it to explode.
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
    The average salt granule is 10-03 millimeters long.
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
    A brief word on the age-old question, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”  According to On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee, “Eggs existed long before chickens.  The first eggs were released, fertilized, and hatched in the ocean. Around 250 million years ago [10+08], the earliest fully land-dwelling animals, the reptiles, developed a self-contained egg with a tough, leathery skin that prevented fatal water loss. The eggs of birds, animals that arose some 100 million years later, are a refined version of this reproductive adaptation to life on land. Eggs, then, are millions of years older than birds. Gallus domesticus, the chicken more or less as we know it, is only a scant 4 or 5 thousand years old [10+03].”
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    Vanilla comes from celadon colored orchids.  While there are about 20,000 varieties (10+04) of orchid, the Joy of Baking explains that only the celadon colored one “bears anything edible.” 
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, such as Nestle Toll House
    In the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield was best known for the Butter Drop Do cookies she baked at the Toll House Inn.  One day she realized she’d run out of bakers chocolate.  Wakefield decided to chop up Nestle semi-sweet chocolate as a substitute, but the pieces didn’t melt into the dough as she’d expected.  The result?  The unintentional birth of the chocolate chip cookie.  It is impossible to measure the joy Wakefield has brought to our lives—not to mention our taste buds—but it is safe to say that if we could, it would fall somewhere around 10+25.

For baking directions, click here.  Be sure to let us know how they turn out!

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Liar Liar

Yaling Yang of the University of Southern California says, "For normal people, from age 2 to age 10 there is a big jump in their white matter, and actually that's the same age that they develop the skill to lie." Pinocchio must have more white matter in his brain than other children (or fictional characters for that matter).

Consider this scenario: as you leave work one day, an annoying co-worker corners you and asks you out on a date.  As quickly as possible, you have to come up with an excuse for why you can’t go.  What would you say?  How quickly could you make up a story?  How convincing would it be?  According to NPR’s Radio Lab, the answers may lie in how much white matter you have in your brain.

While half of the brain is composed of gray matter that processes information, the other half is composed of white matter. White matter connects our ideas and thoughts by transporting electrical signals from one group of neurons to another.  (“Each neuron forms about 1,000 [10+03] connections in the brain to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections” [10+12] according to Scientific American.)

A 2005 study led by Yaling Yang of the University of Southern California, and Adrian Raine, an expert on antisocial disorders, found “…evidence of structural differences in the brains of people with a history of persistent lying.” Specifically, people who tend to lie–or even those who can tell fanciful stories on the fly–have up to 20% more white matter than the average person.

To hear the complete story on Radio Lab (highly recommended), click here.  To read the story, click here.

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Using German marks as wallpaper, image courtesy of Bundesarchiv

Due to hyperinflation in the 1920s, one dollar was the equivalent of one trillion (10+12) German marks.  Learn more at

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Can you help us identify these images?

Can you help us identify these images? Go to the Eames Office Facebook page to learn more and share your insights!

The Eames Office is calling upon you to help with an exciting project.  You might call it a treasure hunt—and it’s most certainly an opportunity to flex your cultural, art historical and mathematical muscles!

In the 1960s, the Eameses’ created a beautiful timeline of the history of mathematics from 1000 AD to the present as part of their exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers . . . and Beyond.  IBM gave away the timelines to schools around the world for over 20 years.  Teachers still swear by it, and the Eames Office gets frequent requests for it from people who assume it was made recently.  The original version includes about 1000 images and other graphical elements.

For years, the Eames family has hoped to make this educational resource available to the general public in digital form.  The advent of iPads and other tablets has created the logical means.  Thanks to programming support from IBM, we are turning Charles and Ray’s original timeline into an interactive version called Minds of Modern Mathematics.

Now, here’s where you come in:  if you visit the Eames Office Facebook page, you’ll see about two-dozen images posted that we need your help in identifying. We need to obtain the rights for all of these works or prove that they are in public domain, but before we can do that we have to track down the images themselves.

Our deadline is quickly approaching, so start looking now!  We can calculate the order of magnitude of our collective knowledge once the app is complete, but in the meantime, you should know that our gratitude for your assistance is immeasurable.

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Saving the World’s Languages

Huli Wigmen

Huli Wigmen in Papua New Guinea; Photograph by Chris Rainier, Click on image for more information

According to the National Geographic, “Every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, more than half of the 7,000 (10+04) languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.”  How can we attribute a specific Power of Ten to such a loss?

The National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project (conducted in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages), seeks to preserve endangered languages.  Click here to read the National Geographic article.  You’ll learn about the travels of the Enduring Voices team, and the group’s efforts to identify and document “the most unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages” across the globe.

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  • Countdown to Powers of Ten Day

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