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The Big and Small of Scientific Numbers

Everyday Einstein takes a look at some of the very large and very small numbers frequently thrown around in science, and helps makes them easier to visualize.

By
Lee Falin, PhD,
July 25, 2014
Episode #109

Page 1 of 2

Sometimes in science, we talk about things that are either really big or really small. So today, I want to take a look at some of the numbers that are frequently thrown around, and give them a bit of everyday perspective.

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Faster than a Speeding Bullet

First, let’s take a look at some common scales of speed. Let’s imagine that you have a very fancy car that can travel at insane speeds, without any ill effects. Normally, on an interstate you can drive about 70 miles per hour. Let’s imagine that you live exactly 70 miles from your favorite movie theater. How long before the show starts would you have to leave your house in order to arrive just in time?

Ignoring the time it takes you to get in and out of the car, and assuming that you could drive the same speed the entire time, at a speed of 70 miles per hour it would take you one hour to get to the theater. That was probably pretty obvious, but let’s take a look at some other speeds.

Let’s imagine that you could drive your car at the speed of sound. That hour-long trip would only take you about six minutes at the speed of sound. Of course, the speed of sound can vary somewhat depending on temperature and atmospheric pressure, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Six minutes is great, but what if you’re a really big procrastinator? Fortunately, your car can also travel at the speed of light, so how much time would it take you to get to the theater going at the speed of light? I hope you’ve buckled your seatbelt, because at the speed of light it would take you just 6 millionths of a second.

That sounds pretty fast, right? But just how small is a millionth of something?

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