Home Columns Anantha Narayan Size matters

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Google has its massive headquarters in Silicon Valley and it’s famously called Googleplex. The seemingly unremarkable name has something very mathemagical about it. If you google the word ‘googleplex’, you’ll discover that it’s 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100. To normal folks, it might look like just another geeky number. But to scientists, it is the largest number with a name. To give you a perspective of how huge it is, try jotting down the number of zeroes on a piece of paper. Apparently, the whole observable universe will not be enough to fit in the googleplex. It’s that humongous!
Contrast this with the world of small numbers. When we say microscopic, we probably refer to micro numbers or numbers that are one millionth in size. Bacteria are usually five micrometres long. Red blood cells are 10 micrometers in diameter. A strand of hair is 50 micrometres in thickness.
As we made more progress in precision measurement, the scientific world switched over to the nano scale or numbers that are one billionth in size. Much of the inner secrets of biology can be gleaned using the nano scale. For example, haemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein, is about 5.5 nanometres in diameter. And the basic building block of life, the DNA molecule, is around two nanometres in diameter.
The world of small then got tinier and tinier, with more breakthroughs. Atoms are now measured in picometers (one trillionth). Protons are described with femtometers (one quadrillionth). The smallest known fundamental particles (Quarks) are quantified in attometers (one quintillionth). And with the discovery of the god particle, many are wondering if using zepto (one sextillionth) or yoctometers (one septillionth) makes more sense. Yocto is one trillionth trillionth. It’s unimaginably inconsequential.
Still, is that the smallest length we can measure? To sidestep this query, physicists proposed the theoretical concept of Planck length. It’s technically the number 16 preceded by 34 zeroes and a decimal point. It’s at least one nano times smaller than yocto. It is the smallest observable length in the universe. If you want to probe teensier sizes, you’d need so much energy that you’d have to create a black hole for it! Hopefully that should put an end to all the small talk.

-Anantha Narayan

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