I kept thinking about Feynman’s words last week, when three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on creating laser light bursts only one millionth of one trillionth of a second long, which is fast enough to track the movements of electrons in a chemical reaction.
The next day, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in creating quantum dots, clusters of atoms so small that they are effectively dimensionless.
The prizes highlighted how out of proportion people are with nature’s most consequential processes.
Most of my professional life has been spent penning works dealing with topics of cosmic proportions, when decades pass and distances are measured in light-years (6 trillion miles for one light-year). Stars can live for hundreds of millions or perhaps billions of years. Black holes might potentially consume for a googol — 10100 years, according to some estimations.
However, atoms are measured in nanometers, which are roughly three millionths of an inch. My coworker Carl Zimmer estimates that there are around 37 trillion cells in my body that do all the job of keeping me alive and cognizant.
Since attoseconds are used to quantify the duration of chemical reactions, it is fair, however risky, to assume that each of the 37 trillion cells that make up my body undergoes one million trillion chemical reactions per second.
The occurrence of quantum mishaps is commonplace. Like Schrodinger’s cat, why haven’t I died and come back to life in a quantum fizz? The vast sums of which we are made give me a sense of security and steadiness. Perhaps the huge numbers act as a shield against the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. So, I guess I am here.
Our average human life span is only a couple octillion attoseconds, and our average height is one-hundredth of one-septillionth (10-24) the size of the observable universe. The elusive Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that only lasts for a thousandth of an attosecond before it decays, making an attosecond seem like an aeon in comparison.
For astrophysicists, it took just a quectosecond (10-32 of a second) after the beginning of time to begin shaping space-time and the particles and forces that would inhabit it, making inflation one of the most fascinating and fundamental occurrences in the cosmos.
Dr. Feynman pointed out that the Planck length (10-33 of a centimetre) and the Planck duration (10-43 of a second) are not the final constraints imposed by quantum mechanics. The German physicist Max Planck, whose work laid the groundwork for quantum physics, is honoured with both names.
Even as we seek for the stars, if we devote more time, resources, and ingenuity to research, we may be able to finish the journey through inner space to these limitations. It’s possible that one day the world we discover under and within our fingernails will be just as spectacular and dramatic as the one we see every night in the sky.